The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 54, No 2, March-April 2001

Theology for the Laity

Part II: The Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

Behind much misunderstanding of the special graces granted to our Blessed Lady is a false sense of competition between the Church's devotion toward her and worship of our Blessed Lord. With every privilege granted to Mary, something is taken away from Our Lord, so the thinking goes. There is a failure to see the support her privileges give to our belief in her Son. In dealing with such misunderstanding, we should be quick to stress that, in fact, every privilege attributed by the Church to Our Lady reinforces the holiness and divine origins of her Son. Her perpetual virginity is a prime example of this support, as we shall see below, beginning with what the Scriptures say about the birth of Our Savior.


Both St. Matthew and St. Luke give explicit accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus; both tell us that God became incarnate in the womb of Mary by a special miracle allowing her to conceive without having relations with a husband. This was in fulfillment of a plan God had in mind for all eternity, and revealed for the first time in the early 700’s B.C., when He said through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, that is God-is-with-us" (7:14). Nowhere in scriptural references to the virgin birth is any rationale given for God choosing this course of action. But the wisdom of God here is not beyond us to discern. St. Thomas, who lists four reasons in all, says for the first of these that the virgin birth was fitting

God, whose power is almighty, could have chosen to become incarnate in a human nature conceived in the usual way between husband and wife. But so important it is that mankind acknowledge the greatness of God in Jesus Christ, that it would be counter-productive for the Father to introduce a possible source of confusion. A human father for Jesus in addition to His Eternal Father would be precisely this. Already God had been working through His prophets, men who had been created from the conjugal union of husband and wife and whom He endowed with His wisdom and power. But if the coming of the Eternal Son into this world had resulted from natural procreation, one can surmise the temptation of weak human minds to fail to see Him as different from these merely human messengers of God. As St. Thomas wisely observes above, the human father, nearest to us and easiest to identify with, would tend to receive a greater amount of attention. The true and eternal fatherhood of God would be compromised, and His dignity transferred to the human father. The end result would be that Our Lord’s true nature as the Son of God would retreat into the background and be ignored. So there is a problem here of representing His divine origins in the most clear and definitive manner. This, in fact, is what God has accomplished by assuming human nature through a virgin.

Thus the divinely chosen function of Our Lady’s virginity is to bolster our faith in the divinity of her Son. From the first appearance of the Church’s teaching on her virginity in Matthew and Luke we can see that this is the case.


But the accounts in Matthew and Luke are only a partial glimpse of an underlying current of belief held by the Church from its beginning. The full expression of this belief is that our Blessed Lady was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus’ birth. This will be a point difficult to get across to Protestants because of their failing to acknowledge the larger body of teaching, or Sacred Tradition, from which the New Testament Scriptures were composed. The New Testament was a written form of teaching, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that arose from a much broader body of knowledge, also inspired by the Holy Spirit, communicated in the teaching and preaching of the apostles. There is no question that this broader, divinely-given teaching is implied in the Scriptures themselves. Clearly the apostles were aware of much Our Lord said and did that is not recorded in the Gospels. St. John testifies to this at the very end of his Gospel (Jn. 21:25). From this broader, non-written, but first-hand source of revelation they derived their teaching, as St. Paul testifies in a number of passages (1 Cor. 11:23, Gal. 1:12, 2 Tim. 2;2). Indeed, these passages show that, at first, divinely inspired tradition was the only form of teaching available.

Mary’s virginity before, during, and after birth, comes from this broad, non-written teaching, handed down by the apostles. It has continued down the centuries as a divinely-inspired teaching of the Church along with that of the Sacred Scriptures. This is our understanding of Sacred Tradition that most of us are familiar with, but is nevertheless worthwhile to review it in this consideration of the teaching on Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. A divinely-inspired and apostolic origin to her perpetual virginity, and indeed to all her privileges, needs to be kept firmly in mind.

But as we mentioned in passing in the last issue with the doctrine on the Trinity, the full expression of the Church’s teaching does not necessarily appear right at the beginning. A Christian living around 100 would not have the terminology available to say "I believe that in the one God there are three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Such would have been the belief, but the use of the word “person” for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not come into the Church’s terminology until about a hundred years later. Expression of belief develops with time.

With the Blessed Mother’s virginity, the belief was held from the beginning that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her Son. But there was a similar need for time in order that the belief reach full expression. We have a partial glimpse of this belief in the Gospels, showing her virginity before and at the time of conception. But seventy or eighty years later an anonymous author wrote a work entitled The Protoevangelium of James that reflects a fuller expression of Mary’s virginity which was then current. It should be noted that the Protoevangelium was never recognized by the Church as being part of its inspired Scriptures. The work includes a number of legendary events surrounding the life of Mary up until the birth of Our Lord that point clearly to human authorship, not divine. What does come through, however, are two important points:

  1. the miraculous appearance of Jesus at birth without affecting Mary’s physical condition as a virgin; and
  2. a description of Joseph as widower already having children at the time he was betrothed to Mary.

Through this latter detail there is an explanation provided for the "brethren of the Lord" in the Gospels, and, hence, an allusion to our Lady’s virginity after the birth of Jesus. The full expression of the belief is coming into view. Within another hundred years after the Protoevangelium of James another author comes forward to speak even more clearly on the full tradition. Origen, a scripture scholar from Alexandria and speaking for the Church in the early 200s, praises those who acknowledge Mary’s virginity throughout her life, saying how

Such appeals as we are making here to the presence of the full teaching on Our Lady’s virginity in the early Church will mean little to Christians who rely on Scripture as their only authority. But it would be important to point out that the first generations of Christians, as is born out in the writings from the period, did not think of Mary in the manner of contemporary Bible Christians. A belief that she was a highly virtuous, but typical wife and mother with a number of children, so common today, would receive little acceptance among early Christians. Origen’s statement was representative of mainline Christian thinking of that time. Our Lady had for Christians an important role as the one whom the Holy Spirit overshadowed. She had a body that had been specially chosen, as Origen said, “to serve the Word”. Thus, her perpetual virginity was a recognition of the uniqueness of that body and the exceptional way it was used by God. Another prominent theologian of the day, Hippolytus, remarked that

The holiness of Mary and the emphasis on her virginity was something that the average believer simply expected to be true. She had to be holy because the Word, Who was Holiness Itself, demanded it. She had to be a virgin throughout her life because having been used so profoundly by God, her body belonged to Him and no other.


Thus the early Church’s understanding of Mary’s virginity was in fact coming from a profound respect for the Word who had taken flesh in her womb. It is well worth noting that the period for the most clear statements on the perpetual virginity of Mary came during the Arian crisis in which the divinity of Christ was being denied.

Teachers and sects who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary were often found associated with or embracing heresy about Our Lord. An early Christian sect in Palestine known as the Ebionites, who denied the virgin birth of Our Lord, also denied His divinity. A prominent teacher in Rome by the name of Helvidius who caused a stir by asserting that Mary and Joseph had children after the birth of Jesus was also associated with the Arian heresy. Another bishop in Asia Minor, Bonosus, who was condemned for denying Mary’s virginity after the birth of her Son, was the founder of an Arian sect that continued down to the seventh century.

In this time of doctrinal turmoil, then, the defenders of Christ’s divinity turned to the long-standing belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary as a guarantee of the true coming of the Word of God into her womb. Mary’s permanent virginity was a gift from God to the Church to verify that Jesus truly is the Son of God. It was a miraculous virginity to reinforce the miracle of God becoming man. It is meant to support our faith in Christ’s divinity, not to weaken it. It is with this support in mind that the fifth century preacher Proclus of Constantinople states:

Although for all practical purposes the doctrine of our Blessed Lady’s life-long virginity had been fully elaborated by the fifth century, the formal definition did not come until the Lateran Council of 649. According to canon 3 of that Council, the conception of our Blessed Lord was "of the Holy Spirit without seed," and Mary "bore Him without any corruption, her virginity remaining intact after His birth" (Denz. 503). With this statement the perpetual virginity of Mary was fully integrated into the teaching authority of the Church, and became a dogma of faith to which Catholics must give their assent.


The objections non-Catholics have raised against the perpetual virginity of Our Lady derive from the lack of clear reference to the teaching in the Gospels. As we have mentioned, the Gospels are only part of a much broader teaching handed on by the apostles. Both Matthew and Luke relate that Mary conceived the Son of God as a virgin, through the power of the Holy Spirit. But they say nothing of her giving birth in a miraculous way that physically preserved her virginal integrity, nor do they say anything directly about her remaining a virgin for the rest of her life. This opens the door for dissent against the teaching by Protestants, who acknowledge no other source of revelation than Sacred Scripture. Interestingly enough, this dissent did not begin with the three founding fathers of the Protestant reformation, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. All three accepted without question the virginity of Mary before, during, and after birth. Zwingli himself gave one of the most openly Catholic affirmations of the doctrine when he said, "I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the Gospel, as a pure Virgin, brought forth for us the Son of God, and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin" (Zwinglii Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, 1, 424, cited in Theotokos, A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 378).

Contrary, then, to the beginnings of the Protestant movement, the subsequent trend has been to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary based on three main points:

  1. the verse in Matthew that Joseph "knew her not until she had borne a son" (1:25), implying, the dissenters say, that after this set period of time Joseph and Mary had conjugal relations;
  2. Luke’s statement that "she gave birth to her first-born son" (2:7), indicating that more children followed; and
  3. all three of the Gospels reference to the "brethren of the Lord".

None of the objections are original to Protestants. They were raised many times in the early Church. Still to this day, they have been most effectively dealt with by St. Jerome in his apologetic tract (written in 383) against the heretical theologian, Helvidius, mentioned above. Our readers are referred to this work, which is perhaps most easily accessible for those with internet access at Go to "Church Fathers" and under "Jerome" look up the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary. Otherwise, the same work can be found in volume 6 of the series entitled Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers published by the Eerdmans Publications Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan. By way of a brief summary of Jerome on the three points mentioned above, it can be said that:

  1. The use of "until" in the Scriptures does not always indicate a set period of time. Often it implies time in an indefinite sense. An obvious example is the Lord’s statement, translating from the Greek text: "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20). Our Lord clearly means He will be with us not only up to the end of the age, but afterwards as well!
  2. The use of the word "first-born" by the Jews was for a male offspring that opened the womb. As is evident from the law on redeeming the first-born in Numbers 18:15, there is no implication of other offspring.
  3. In Holy Scripture there are actually four different uses of "brethren". It can designate a natural relationship (as in Esau and Jacob); a bond of race (all Jews are called brothers to one another); a relationship among family members (Lot and Abraham are called brothers, even though Abraham was actually his uncle); a relationship of charity (as St. Paul often uses "brethren" in his letters). Thus, it is not at all true that the literal sense of the phrase "brethren of the Lord" can only mean that Jesus had brothers and sisters.

The Gospels, in fact, are inconclusive in themselves as regards the virginity of Mary after the birth of Jesus. They neither affirm her perpetual virginity, nor deny it. And so here we can see the importance of an authoritative guide to the interpretation of the Scriptures - a guide inspired by the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures. This we know as the teaching authority, or magisterium, of the Church, from which comes the full belief in our Blessed Lady's permanent virginity.

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