True, Virginal Wife of Joseph

The Holy Family, by Juan Simon Gutierrez (1643-1718).

Recently, a holy, married couple made the following claim regarding the central place of sexual intercourse in sacramental marriage, expressed as a personal insight, gained over the course of more than 50 years of sacramental marriage:

Gradually, we came to see that the only feature that distinguishes our sacramental relationship from that of any other good, Christ-centered relationship is sexual intimacy, and that marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.1

As the husband of a beautiful wife, and father of five (young) children myself—though with only about a fifth of their years of experience—I can certainly agree on one level with the married couple cited above regarding the centrality of both physical and spiritual intimacy in sacramental marriage. Indeed, unless we embrace Cartesian dualism, physical and spiritual intimacy for two human persons cannot exist in isolation of each other (on one level). However, if one maintains that the only feature distinguishing sacramental marriage from “any other good, Christ-centered relationship”, viz., the defining characteristic of sacramental marriage, is sexual intimacy, then one cannot maintain, with Pope St. John Paul II, that Joseph was the true, virginal husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed, if the married couple cited above were correct, then the appellation “true, virginal husband” would be a contradiction in terms.

What, then, is the origin and paradigm of the intimate union of two persons in sacramental marriage, if it cannot be reduced to sexual intimacy (however beautiful and important such sexual intimacy is)? What, indeed, is the origin and paradigm of the sexual differentiation of male and female in human persons at all, upon which sexual intimacy is, of course, fundamentally based? Here, as in everything, we must turn our eyes toward God, the Most Holy Trinity, and try to see things from his point of view, rather than from our point of view. First and foremost, in the words of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner:

Per se. divine persons are not differentiated via male or female gender. … There is no such thing as a tri-personal divine nature masculine, rather than feminine, or feminine, rather than masculine. The divine persons, as persons, are designated with the male pronoun, not in reference to what is called the empirical data of sexual differentiation, but in reference to their real distinction from Mary: She, and in the case of the Son, because born New Adam or male, of the Virgin Mary, who thereby is exemplar of the Church as new Eve and virgin bride of Christ. … This is what St. Maximilian is saying, this is what St. Francis also affirmed, and it is this which underlies the so-called Franciscan thesis of Scotus and his metaphysics of person in the Trinity, in the hypostatic order (which includes the Virgin Mother) and in the Church.2

The theology of St. Maximilian Kolbe is firmly grounded in the Franciscan theology of Bl. John Duns Scotus, which takes, as a point of departure, the so-called Joint Primacy of Jesus and Mary (the Franciscan or Scotistic thesis).3 This Joint Primacy was mentioned by Bl. Pope Bl. Pius IX in his declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, when he said that “from the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father …, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.”4 That is, before Adam and Eve were made, the first models of man and woman (and, in fact, all created things) were Jesus and Mary in the mind of God. Thus, Jesus and Mary are the original and perfect prototypes of Man and Woman. Again in the words of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner:

Hence, the correct way of speaking theologically, is determined, not by biological priorities, but by the mysteries of salvation, in which the recognition or denial of the central place of the first born daughter of the Father and spouse of the Holy Spirit, in revealing the person of Father and Spirit, because Mother of the Son, is the crucial and operative question. Obviously, the approach of St. Maximilian is fully Catholic. Can the same be said for those, who, whether conservative or liberal, fail to root their theology in the full mystery of Christ, a mystery including the divine Maternity, and in the signa divinae voluntatis? … In any case, it is important to note that feminism is a consequence, not of stressing the Marian mystery at the center of our theology (and the scotistic thesis especially sustaining this truth of faith), but of a denial that Woman, as such, is essentially defined by Maternity: not abstractly, but concretely, as the Immaculate Conception, whose only reason to exist is to conceive and give birth virginally to the Son of God. For the sake of her, qua Immaculate Mother of God, all the rest of creation was made. … That is why St. Maximilian (and before him, St. Francis and St. Bernard) in setting Marian spirituality at the heart of male conformity to Christ crucified, viz., the spirituality of spousal love, far from being responsible for the feminization of the Church, offer the only key to an authentic realization of what masculine and feminine are about, both in the community and in each member of the community.5

Thus, in Mary, we find the true original prototype and the perfect realization of Woman, essentially defined by Maternity (which is to say, fecundity). In a singular way, however, Mary’s maternal fecundity was attained through her virginal purity. The juxtaposition of Virginal Purity and Maternal Fecundity in the Perfect Woman strikes a deathblow to the ideal of selfish autonomy in all its forms, from radical feminism to homosexuality, and a host of other prevalent secularist mindsets, all of which abhor motherhood in the natural sense as incompatible with “personal freedom,” and all of which abhor virginity as incompatible with “sexual fulfillment.”

If the origin and paradigm of womanhood in the mind of God from the very beginning was the Blessed Virgin Mary, virgin and mother, it follows that the origin and paradigm of sacramental marriage can only be understood through her. This origin and paradigm of sacramental marriage exists on two levels: first, in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s relationship to the Holy Spirit, her Spouse; and second, in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s relationship to Joseph, her true, virginal husband.

St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, the Seraphic Doctor of the Church, discussed the Holy Spirit in terms of a “conception,” both in reference to his procession within the Trinity, and in reference to his mission.6 Thus, St. Maximilian Kolbe followed St. Bonaventure’s lead (though he may not have been aware that he was doing so), when he called the Holy Spirit the Uncreated Immaculate Conception: “Hence, the Holy Spirit is an uncreated conception, an eternal one; he is the prototype of every sort of human conception in the universe. … (He) is a most holy conception, infinitely holy, immaculate.”7 In view of the revelation given to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Created Immaculate Conception. St. Maximilian Kolbe reflected that, in virtue of Mary’s relationship with the Holy Spirit, most evident at the moment of the Incarnation of the Son of God in her Immaculate womb, the Blessed Virgin Mary is, in fact, both the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit quasi-incarnate.8

The term quasi-incarnate, used by St. Maximilian, is a profound and precise expression of the intimacy of the spousal union between the Blessed Virgin Mary and God, especially in the Person of the Holy Spirit, which far excels the spousal union of husband and wife, in which we already know that, in the words of Christ, “they are not two, but one flesh.” Mary is not the wife of the Holy Spirit; she is the true wife of Joseph, and Joseph is her true husband. The words, “husband” and “wife,” necessarily denote the complementarity of the sexes proper to natural marriage. In the words of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner:

Indeed, spousal love is truly realized in marriage, but not perfectly. The exemplar is that of the love of the divine persons, in which the Immaculate Virgin shares in a way, such as also to be an exemplar for every other form of spousal love. … Parallelwise, those who do not take the virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph as the exemplar for both marriage and the virginal state, end in misunderstanding all states of human life, married and virginal, clerical and lay.9

The unique spousal union between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit bears the most perfect fruit: the God-Man Jesus Christ. “This uncreated Immaculate Conception (the Holy Spirit) conceives divine life immaculately in the soul of Mary, his Immaculate Conception. The virginal womb of her body, too, is reserved for him who conceives there in time—everything material comes about according to time—the divine life of the God-Man.”10 Clearly then, the dignity of the Blessed Virgin as Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit quasi-incarnate, as with every Marian dignity, hinges on the divine Maternity.

Sadly, it has been suggested11 that the intimate union of Mary, the created Immaculate Conception, with the Holy Spirit, the uncreated Immaculate Conception, as Spouse of the Holy Spirit (cf. St. Francis of Assisi12) and, consequently, the Holy Spirit quasi-incarnate (cf. St. Maximilian Kolbe13), would necessarily make any semblance of Mary’s genuine personality disappear on account of the infinite Personality of the Holy Spirit (i.e., Mary would become a kind of “robot” controlled by the will of the Holy Spirit, with no human will of her own). This is a major fallacy for at least two reasons: First, it implicitly accepts the heresy of “monotheletism,” since even the human will of Jesus Christ himself, who is truly the Eternal Word incarnate, is not identical with the will of his divine nature, and so Jesus is not a kind of “robot,” controlled by the will of the Eternal Word! Second, it completely ignores the nature of union in love—“and the two become as one flesh” (Mk 10:8)—including the loving union between God and man. Pope Benedict XVI assures us that “man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion (emphasis added), a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves, and yet become fully one.”14

Mary is truly the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, as well as the Holy Spirit quasi-incarnate. Nevertheless, according to Bl. John Duns Scotus, Mary remains always the true, virginal wife of Joseph, just as Joseph remains the true, virginal husband of Mary. In fact, it can even be said that Joseph is the true, virginal father of Jesus Christ, since, in the words of Fr. Ruggero Rosini:

As such, Joseph is the coproprietor with Mary of this “Fruit” which matured in her womb. The Mother herself attests to this when she says, “Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Behold, in sorrow, Thy father and I have been seeking Thee.” (Lk 2:48) By calling Joseph “Thy father,” Mary indicates that he is something more than a simple “custodian”; she shows that both of them are equally proprietors, both equally co-responsible. It is not without reason that Jesus is called “the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45). This is precisely because Joseph does not derive his rights over that Child and his duties towards Him from some external delegation, or from his good will, but from the matrimony itself. The final end of this marriage, in part, is reserved to God, insofar as the conception of the Child goes; whereas the other part, insofar as the consequences of conception go—propriety, responsibility, custody, etc.—belongs to Joseph.15

This was also the opinion of Pope St. John Paul II16 and St. Maximilian Kolbe. In the words of Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano:

Although singular, unique, and not univocal with fatherhood, as this is ordinarily understood and commonly found among men, the position more common and traditional among theologians upholds the truly real fatherhood of Joseph in relation to Jesus, based 1) on his marriage to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and 2) on the right of the husband over his wife. He, therefore, who is born virginally of Mary, by reason of his birth, intimately pertains, in some manner, to Joseph as father. … In view of the dignity of Joseph as husband of Mary, to whom belongs the fruit of his wife’s womb, one is not permitted to overlook, as F. Canals wisely observes, how the indivisible virginity of both spouses—not simply that of Mary, but also that of her husband, the son of David—is ordered to the virginal fatherhood of Joseph, according to the Spirit, in virtue of the obedience of faith to the saving plan of God. This plan includes the messianic fatherhood of Joseph, as son of David, in relation to his virginal Son, constituted Son of David, the messianic King, because He was Son of Joseph.17

Just as Mary does not “disappear” next to the relative infinity of the Holy Spirit, her divine Spouse, so, also, Joseph does not “disappear” next to the relative infinity of Mary, his wife. Indeed, many saints and holy writers believe that Joseph occupies a place in the Church that is uniquely highest after Mary.18 Thus, by the circumstance of his closeness to the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the doctrine of merit of Bl. John Duns Scotus, the glories, graces, and merits of Joseph have their own level of relative infinity, infinitely greater than (and, therefore, incommensurate with) those of any other member of the Church, except for Jesus and Mary, and still infinitely less than (and, therefore, incommensurate with) those of Mary, who occupies a place in the Church that is uniquely highest after Christ.19 In the words of Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano:

This association of the two spouses must be understood from the perspective of the inseparability of the Three, in their being, and in the work of salvation, according to a certain hierarchical subordination. Mary received her privilege of a fullness of immaculate holiness from Jesus, by reason of her preservative redemption, as Scotus knew how to explain so well. This made her capable of being 1) Mother of God, first, in her heart and in her mind, and, then, in her womb (in the flesh formed by the Holy Spirit in her virginal womb with her fully active, maternal cooperation, as we have seen Scotus underscore with such insistence), and 2) Coredemptrix. … In turn, through his Spouse (Mary), Joseph received the fullness of grace, which we can quite adequately term paternal. This made him capable of a messianic, virginal fatherhood, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, in virtue of his unconditional, silent response in faith. In virtue of this, he became co-participant with Mary in constituting the theandric being of the Redeemer. This is the basis of his redemptive work: both objective from Nazareth to Calvary, and subjective in his saving dispensation during history until the Parousia. Hence, Joseph is father and lord of the Family of God which is the Church, prolongation of the Family of Nazareth, summit of the divine plan of salvation of the world.20

It is impossible that applying a maximality of praise to Joseph can, in any way, detract from Mary, any more than applying a maximality of praise to Mary can, in any way, detract from the Holy Spirit, or Jesus. In fact, precisely the opposite is true! The glories of Joseph actually safeguard the glories of Mary, just as the glories of Mary safeguard the glories of Jesus. To see that this is true, consider the fact, that there would be nothing special about Joseph, if there were nothing special about Mary, just as there would be nothing special about Mary, if there were nothing special about Jesus. It follows with logical certainty (by contrapositive), that if there is something special about Joseph, then there must be something special about Mary, and if there is something special about Mary, then there must be something special about Jesus!

In this way, we see, very practically, how our devotion to Joseph safeguards both our devotion to Mary and our devotion to Jesus, just as our devotion to Mary safeguards our devotion to Jesus. Joseph fulfills his role as perfect husband and father by protecting both his wife, Mary, and their son, Jesus, just as Mary fulfills her role as perfect wife and mother, by protecting their son, Jesus, the virginal fruit of their virginal marriage. In so doing, the Holy Family of Nazareth, Joseph, Mary, and the God-Man Jesus Christ, provide us with an incomparable example of Christian marriage, as the true paradigms for every member of the Christian family: father-husband, mother-wife, and child-the-consummation-of-the-love-between-husband-and-wife.

Given the intrinsic correspondence between maximal praise and honor given to Mary, and maximal praise and honor given to Joseph—indeed, the intrinsic correspondence between maximal praise and honor given to all three members of the Earthly Trinity: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—it comes as no surprise that Joseph was proclaimed the patron and protector of the Church by the same pope who proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s

Immaculate Conception: Bl. Pope Pius IX.

In the return of all created things to God the Father, it is under the leadership of Joseph, our Patriarch, and in imitation of him that the individual members of the Church must, by the merits gained for us through the Redemptive Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, be transubstantiated into the Immaculate,21 the Virgo Ecclesia Facta.22 It is only by being transubstantiated into Mary, the created Immaculate Conception, that we can be united to God, as she is uniquely united to God, and be transubstantiated with her into the uncreated Immaculate Conception, the Holy Spirit. In virtue of this transubstantiation, we are possessed by the Immaculate, and we are, thereby, transformed in her womb into a single community or Church, having the personality of both our parents: our mother, Mary, and our father, Joseph, who is, himself, a perfect, or transparent, icon of the Eternal Father in Heaven.

This is the origin and paradigm of the human family. This is the origin and paradigm of the physical and spiritual intimacy of sacramental marriage. This is the “great mystery” recognized by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:32). By one and the same decree of the Eternal Father before the creation of the universe, this holy, perfect, and true family was predestined to be an image and model of the Church and her members: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This is certainly no less true of the Domestic Church, than it is true of the Universal Church. Every husband and wife must look to Joseph and Mary, and to the virginal fruit of their marriage, Jesus, as the interpretive key—or hermeneutic—for their own sacramental marriage. As beautiful and necessary as sexual intimacy is for fecundity between most married couples, the fact remains, that the origin and paradigm of sacramental marriage was, and remains, both virginal and fruitful … and this is indeed a great mystery.

  1. Ron and Marvis Pirola, as quoted by Andrea Tornielli, “Couple at Synod: What to do when a gay son wants to bring his partner home for Christmas?” Vatican Insider (October 6, 2014). 
  2. Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, FI, St. Maximilian Ma. Kolbe, Martyr of Charity—Pneumatologist, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2004): pp. 170-172. Subsequent citations are abbreviated PDF. 
  3. Cf. Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean, FI, A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2006). 
  4. Bl. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution (December 8, 1854). 
  5. PDF: pp. 175-176. 
  6. St. Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 10, a. 2, q. 1; III Sent. d. 4, a. 1, q. 1. 
  7. St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, SK 1318. All citations from the writings of St. Maximilian Kolbe are abbreviated SK and are taken from Scritti di Massimiliano Kolbe, Roma (1997). 
  8. SK 1286. 
  9. PDF: pp. 174-175. 
  10. SK 1318. 
  11. Cf. Monica Migliorino Miller, “The Gender of the Holy Trinity”, New Oxford Review (May 2003). 
  12. The title “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” is applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Francis of Assisi in the Antiphon “Sancta Maria Virgo” for his Office of the Passion. Cf. Fr. Johannes Schneider, OFM, Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Presence of Mary in the Crucifix of San Damiano and in the Office of the Passion of St. Francis of Assisi, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2004): p. 105. 
  13. SK 1286. 
  14. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Encyclical Letter (December 25, 2005). 
  15. Fr. Ruggero Rosini, OFM, Mariology of Blessed John Duns Scotus, translated by Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, FI, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2008): pp. 112-113. 
  16. Cf. Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, Apostolic Exhortation (August 15, 1989). 
  17. Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano, “The Virginal Marriage of Mary and Joseph according to Bl. John Duns Scotus” in Blessed John Duns Scotus and His Mariology, Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Death, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2009): pp. 385-386. 
  18. Cf. Msgr. Arthur Burton Calkins, “The Cultus of the Heart of St. Joseph. An Inquiry into the Status Quaestionis”, Akten des IX Internationalen des hl. Joseph, 28 Sept. – 2 Oct., 2005, Kevelaer, Germany, vol. 2: pp. 937-951; Edward Healy Thompson, The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, Burns & Oates, London (1888). In the words of Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano: “The devotion to the ‘Three Hearts’ united of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph began in Portugal and Brazil (1733) and flourished especially in Mexico. Around the middle of the 18th century, it was spread in France, Spain and Italy by the Discalced Carmelite Fr. Elias of the Three Hearts. With the approbation of Gregory XVI (28 April 1843), this devotion expanded very much in Europe and America, promoted especially by F. L. Filas, SJ, and by a good number of well-known ecclesiastics.” Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano, “Mariology of St. Paul” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross—IX: Mary: Spouse of the Holy Spirit, Coredemptrix and Mother of the Church. Acts of the Ninth International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2010): p. 183, footnote 7. 
  19. Lumen Gentium Chapter 8, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (November 21, 1964): LG 54. 
  20. Fr. Joaquín Ferrer Arellano, “The Virginal Marriage of Mary and Joseph according to Bl. John Duns Scotus” in Blessed John Duns Scotus and His Mariology, Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Death, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2009): p. 387. 
  21. SK 508. Kolbe uses the expression transubstantiation into the Immaculate to describe the desired effect of total consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The use of the same term that describes the complete substantial transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ to describe our complete substantial offering of ourselves to Mary is not accidental. Nor should it surprise us, since we commonly use the term “consecration” for both as well. In the case of the consecration of the Eucharist, nothing of the substances of the original bread and wine remain, but only the Body and Blood of Christ. In the case of the consecration of ourselves to Mary, we can say with St. Paul, “I no longer live, but Christ (living in Mary) lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In Kolbe’s thought, it is only through transubstantiation of ourselves into Mary that we can attain transubstantiation of ourselves into Christ. 
  22. The title “Virgo Ecclesia Facta”, or Virgin-Made-Church, is applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Francis of Assisi in his Salute to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cf. Fr. Johannes Schneider, OFM, Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Presence of Mary in the Crucifix of San Damiano and in the Office of the Passion of St. Francis of Assisi, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2004): p. 70. 
Jonathan Fleischmann About Jonathan Fleischmann

Jonathan Fleischmann is currently an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, USA. Dr. Fleischmann has written peer-reviewed articles on a wide range of subjects, including engineering mechanics, mathematical logic, and Mariology. He is the author of the book Marian Maximalism, with a foreword by His Eminence Cardinal Burke, published by the Academy of the Immaculate (in 2016), and he has contributed over twenty articles on Marian devotion to the Missio Immaculatae International magazine, in addition to his articles published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. His academic webpage is at jonathanfleischmann.wordpress.com.

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