Virgin Undefiled

Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and Her Miraculous Delivery of Christ

As light passes through glass without harming it, so too did Jesus pass through the womb of Mary without the opening of Mary’s womb and without any harm to the physical virginal seal of the Virgin, who was pure and the perfect tabernacle of the unborn Christ.

– Mark Miravalle.1

Holy Mother Church teaches that Mary was not only perpetually virgin but that she also delivered Christ in a miraculous manner. I would like to, in this article, present these views of Holy Mother Church as well as those of the Angelic Doctor in proving that not only was Mary perpetually a virgin, but also that her delivery of Christ was both painless and did not alter her physical virginity in any way. It was commonly held among the early Christian Fathers that the Blessed Virgin Mother did not experience any pain in giving birth to Christ. Oftentimes, they would turn to the prophet Isaiah as Scriptural evidence of this, which states, “before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child” (Is 66:7). This article will consider the painless and miraculous birth of Christ in the light of the dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mother. The dogma itself professes Mary’s state of virginity as perpetual, i.e. that she was and is always a virgin, before, during and after her delivery of Christ, her son. Pope St. Martin I was the first who defined this ternary character of the dogma and he did so during the Lateran Synod in 649 A.D., where he pronounced as an article of faith that, “the blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary conceived, without seed, by the Holy Spirit, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate.”2

The Definition of Virginity

When the early Christian fathers used the term virgin, they were not merely referring to a physical or experiential reality, i.e., that Mary hadn’t physically been with a man or that she had no experience with sexual intercourse. Instead, when they referred to Mary with the title of virgin, it was taken to mean a sign of her essential character. Hence, the fathers presupposed the understanding that Mary was virginal in all regards of her person, body, soul, and spirit (1 Cor 7:34). On account of the grace of God, then, Mary’s virginal character grew, matured, and increased until she became the woman of God who was assumed into heaven. In this regard, her essential virginity came to maturity in a purity unlike any other creature. Hence, her physical virginity which was assumed to have continued until the day she died, is a physical sign of her spiritual character.3

Mary’s Virginity before Christ’s Birth

Sacred Scripture attests to the virginity of Mary across both Old and New Testament. In reading the Gospel of Luke, readers see the Annunciation narrative wherein the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces unto her that she is to become the mother of the Second Person of the Trinity. Luke narrates how Gabriel was sent “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:26–27). The exchange that ensued between Mary and Gabriel bore coherent confirmation of Mary’s virginity as, when Gabriel informed her, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son” (Lk 1:31), her immediate response was, “how will this be since I know not man?” (Lk 1:34). Scripture scholars often point out this distinction that to “know” someone in scripture, within proper context, often means to partake in sexual intercourse with the person.

Looking ahead to an historical document, the Protoevangelium of James, written sometime around 120 A.D., albeit not canonical, also bears testimony to the perpetual virginity of Mary. The document narrates the prophecy that preceded the birth of Mary, also depicting how Mary was devoted to Temple services by St. Anne before she was born. The assumption that follows this is, if Mary had been so consecrated, such a life would include the undertaking of the vow of perpetual virginity.

Retrospectively, then, it is clear that the Old Testament presents the prophecies that prepared the way for this reality. The Prophet Isaiah states, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Is 7:14). Scholars vary in their interpretations of the word “virgin” as, within this verse, the Hebrew word used could also be taken to mean “maiden.” Nonetheless, the Old Testament usage of said word bears the implication that the maiden would, herself be a virgin.4 Dispute over the verse is put to final rest in the conception of Christ by Mary for, indeed, a virgin did, in fact, conceive and bear the Son of God, the one who is “Emmanuel” or “God with us,” Savior and Redeemer of the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas sums up this reality perfectly in stating how, “on account of the very end of Incarnation of Christ, which was that men might be born again as sons of God, ‘not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (Jn 1:13), i.e. of the power of God, of which fact the very conception of Christ was to appear as an exemplar.”5 From there, Aquinas quotes St. Augustine who, in writing about the Blessed Virgin, describes how it was proper that Christ be conceived in a virgin so that the future members of the Church would, in their turn, be born, by the birth of water and the Spirit, of a virgin Church.

Mary’s Virginity during the Birth of Christ

The second of the three facets of the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity refers to Mary’s physical virginity being preserved during her delivery of Christ.

The papal definition of Mary’s continued virginity during the birth of Christ refers to the event that at the appointed time of birth, Jesus left the womb of Mary without the loss of Mary’s physical virginity. The Church understands Mary’s virginity during the birth of Christ as an absence of any physical injury or violation to Mary’s virginal seal (in Latin, virginitas in partu) through a special divine action of the all-powerful God. This divine act would safeguard Mary’s physical virginity which is both symbol and part of her perfect, overall virginity; a virginity both internal and external, of soul and of body.6

This fact was decisively and broadly propagated by the early Christian fathers and the Doctors of the Church. The fathers of the Church overwhelmingly taught the “miraculous birth” of Jesus that resulted in no injury to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s physical integrity. In quoting a sermon from the Council of Ephesus, Thomas Aquinas writes, “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”7 Hence, Aquinas is arguing with conciliar support that Mary’s physical virginity remained intact upon her delivery of Christ. The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah clearly states, “Behold a virgin shall conceive,” but, to that effect, the prophecy further adds, “and shall bear a son” (Is 7:14). Accordingly, Aquinas posits certain logical conclusions from this. Two of these are as follows: Firstly, regarding Christ as the Word (logos). Because the word is conceived in the mind without corruption, it has to necessarily proceed from the mind without causing corruption. This principle is also true for the Word incarnate being conceived and brought forth in Mary. Hence the same sermon of the Council of Ephesus states, “Whosoever brings forth mere flesh, ceases to be a virgin. But since she gave birth to the Word made flesh, God safeguarded her virginity so as to manifest His Word, by which Word He thus manifested Himself.”8 Secondly, Aquinas quotes Augustine who demonstrates how Christ, who came to heal corruption, would not, at the advent of his coming, violate the physical and virginal integrity of Mary.

To wit, Pope St. Leo the Great also defends the preserved virginity of Mary in the process of Christ’s supernatural birth. He states, “Mary brought Him forth, with her virginity untouched, as with her virginity untouched she conceived Him.”9 The understanding that birth pangs were, essentially, the result of a curse that followed the fall of man need be considered, for it followed the act of the sin of Eve. Scripture recounts how the Lord God said to Eve, “in pain you shall bring forth children I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). Being the New Eve who, herself, had chosen a life of absolute obedience to the will of God and who was so confirmed in grace by her Immaculate Conception, Mary stood apart from the rest of womankind regarding this curse. She brought forth Christ, the Son of the Living God whilst preserving her virginal integrity as inviolate, all without experiencing any sense of pain.10 In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on Mary’s inviolate virginity upon Christ’s miraculous birth. It states, “This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception…then also at the birth of our Lord, who did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”11

The Painless and Miraculous Birth of Christ

Because of this, Mary necessarily felt no pain during the birth of Christ. Aquinas describes the pains of childbirth as being caused by the infant opening the passage from the womb, i.e. passing through the birth canal. However, “Christ came forth from the closed womb of His Mother, and, consequently, without opening the passage,” and, ergo, had to have caused her no pain in doing so.12 Elsewhere, Aquinas construes that the pangs of childbirth are the result of the mingling of the sexes, i.e. sexual intercourse.13 However, in quoting Augustine, Aquinas demonstrates how this cannot pertain to the Blessed Virgin Mother, “because she conceived Christ without the defilement of sin, and without the stain of sexual mingling, therefore did she bring Him forth without pain, without violation of her virginal integrity, without detriment to the purity of her maidenhood.”14 Aquinas assumes St. Jerome’s position as assumed valid, i.e. that “no midwife was there, no officious women interfered. She was both mother and midwife.”15 He further argues by way of deduction from this that because Scripture supports this in illustrating how the Blessed Virgin Mother, by herself, after having given birth to Christ, “wrapped [him] up in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger” (Lk 2:7), she must have necessarily experienced a painless and miraculous delivery of Christ.

Mary’s Virginity after the Birth of Christ

The final aspect of the dogma involves Mary’s preserved virginity after her delivery of Christ and unto the end of her days on earth. The Prophet Ezekiel writes, “this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it” (Ezekiel 44:2). St. Augustine, in explicating this verse, postulates the following:

What means this closed gate in the House of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that “no man shall pass through it,” save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this — “The Lord alone enters in and goeth out by it” — except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of angels shall be born of her? And what means this — “it shall be shut for evermore” — but that Mary is a virgin before His Birth, a virgin in His Birth, and a virgin after His Birth?16

Popes across history defend this teaching as well. Pope Paul IV who rebuked anyone who would deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary “did not retain her virginity intact before the birth, in the birth, and perpetually after the birth.”17 The Second Vatican Council also lent its voice to the profession of this dogma by declaring the Blessed Mother as the “glorious ever Virgin Mary.”18

Looking back at the New Testament, and, in particular, the Annunciation event, it is inducible, from Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel, that she was attesting to a vow of perpetual virginity. By contemplating her response, “how will this be since I know not man?” (Lk 1:34), Church Fathers have come to understand Mary’s reply as an allusion to the vow of perpetual virginity that she had already undertaken, offering herself as a complete and irrevocable gift to God. Her statement, “I know not man,” may be taken as an advertence to a pre-existing, permanent vow that connotes an invariable disposition of her virginity. Scholars go so far as to conclude, from this, that God would not only honor such a vow but continue it, thus preserving her virginity even during and, in his grace, after Christ’s birth unto the end of her earthly life.19 It is amazing that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther corroborated this dogma in his own statement, “Mary realized she was the mother of the Son of God, and she did not desire to become the mother of the son of man, but to remain in this divine gift,” a statement that his contemporaries and even other reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and John Wesley, also affirmed.20

St. Thomas Aquinas treats this aspect of the dogma by appealing to other theological truths. Firstly, because Christ was God’s only-begotten Son, it would follow that he likewise deserved to be an “only-begotten” Son of Mary, through whom he received his human nature. Secondly, Aquinas draws from the reality that because the Incarnation, through whom God himself would come to be “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4), took place miraculously through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s womb was necessarily the shrine of the Spirit. Carnal conception in that same shrine would be to desecrate its sacredness and the uniqueness of its seed of precedence. By extension, he also illustrates how preposterous it would be to assume that Mary herself would desire to forfeit God’s miraculous preservation of her immaculate virginity through carnal relations as well. With a tone that comes across as almost indignant, Aquinas also adds that it would be a grave disrespect to St. Joseph to assume that he would want to violate a vessel so pure with carnal relations.21

A further, and final, consideration of Scriptural proof of Mary’s perpetual virginity and its logical correlation that she had no other biological children save Christ, is found in the Gospel of John. At the foot of the Cross at Calvary, Christ entrusts Mary into the care of his beloved disciple (cf. Jn 19:26–27). It would have been of grievous offense to Christ’s alleged other siblings if he had not entrusted Mary into their care, per Jewish custom. The fact that Christ intentionally entrusted Mary to the Apostle John is a sound indicator of Mary’s not having other biological children. (Tangentially, this was also the point where Christ declared her Mother of the Human Race, but that is for another article.)

It was always God’s intention that Salvation History come to a climactic point in the person of Christ. Likewise, it was in his divine Will that Mary was to be, for all mankind across the ages, the perfect model of Christian discipleship. Her life, offered as an absolute and irrevocable gift of self to God renders her as the exemplary type of the Church which, herself, is both virgin and mother as well. In mirroring the virginity of her Son, God’s preservation of Mary’s virginity presents her as an excellent instance of consecration of self to all disciples of Christ in his beloved spouse, the Church — Mary is an ideal expression “that holy virginity is the highest objective vocational gift of self to God.”22

  1. Mark I. Miravalle, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion (Goleta, CA: Queenship, 2006), 58; excerpted online as “The Miraculous and Painless Birth of Jesus Christ,” Mother of All Peoples, Marian Library, motherofallpeoples.com/blog/the-miraculous-and-painless-birth-of-jesus-christ. Hereafter “Miraculous and Painless Birth.”
  2. Miravalle, “Miraculous and Painless Birth.”
  3. Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 2003), 63–64.
  4. Miravalle, “Miraculous and Painless Birth.”
  5. ST III, Q. 28, A. 1, Res.
  6. Miravalle, “Miraculous and Painless Birth.”
  7. ST III, Q. 28, A. 2, Sed.
  8. ST III, Q. 28, A. 2, Sed.
  9. Pope St. Leo, Enchiridion Patristicum, 2182.
  10. Eds. Robert I. Bradley, SJ, and Eugene Kevane, Roman Catechism, (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1985), 49–50.
  11. Pope Paul VI, “Dogmatic constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium (1964), no. 57.
  12. ST III, Q. 35, A. 6, Res.
  13. ST III, Q. 35, A. 6, Ad 1.
  14. ST III, Q. 35, A. 6, Ad 1.
  15. ST III, Q. 35, A. 6, Ad 3.
  16. Judith Costello, To Mary, our morning star: Mariology in ten lessons (State College, PA: Goldhead Group, 2013), 254.
  17. DS 1880; Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, no. 707.
  18. Pope Paul VI, “Dogmatic constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium (1964), no. 52.
  19. Cf. Collins, SJ, “Our Lady’s Vow of Virginity,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1943), 5.
  20. Martin Luther, Wiemar edition of Martin Luther’s Works, trans. William J. Cole, 11, p. 320; John Calvin, cf. Bernard Leeming, “Protestants and Our Lady,” Marian Library Studies, January 1967, 9; John Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic; Ulrich Zwingli, Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Vol. 1, 424.
  21. ST III, Q. 28, a. 3, Res.
  22. Miravalle, “Miraculous and Painless Birth.”
Marcus Benedict Peter About Marcus Benedict Peter

Marcus Benedict Peter hails from Malaysia and has been involved in teaching, faith formation, missionary work, and evangelization of the Faith since 2008. He has ministered and spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and the United States. In 2018, he received his MA in Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida. Marcus regularly writes and creates content for his website, www.marcusbpeter.com, where he does work on Catholic biblical theology, apologetics, and evangelization. At present, Marcus and his bride, Stephanie Mae Peter, live in Marin County, California, and teach fundamental theology and Sacred Scripture at Marin Catholic College Preparatory High School.

Comments

  1. Avatar Harvey B says:

    I understand the idea that Mary is the New Eve, and therefore did not suffer from birth pangs (the effect of original sin). But isn’t pain in general a result of Adam and Eve’s sin?
    If so, then it would follow that she experienced no pain at all — even if someone back then accidentally stepped on Mary’s toe at the busy marketplace. But I don’t think we believe that.
    So how do we reconcile her experiencing some of the pain associated with original sin, but not to the extent of childbirth pain?

    • Hi Harvey,
      I’ve been trying to find resources to better answer this but have been unable to be specific about your query. I will do my best, however.

      1. Before the fall, the reality of death was still existent. This is held by many Catholic Theologians and Scripture Scholars. Two popular ones include Dr. Scott Hahn and Matt Fradd. In fact, it is posited that the reason Adam did not stand up to the serpent was because of the fear of losing his life in protecting his bride, a threat that Our Lord embraced and saw through to the end for the sake of His Bride. As such, the natural consequence of bodily pain due to injury that might result in death may be surmised from this. Thus, Mary’s feeling pain over, say, a stubbed toe would not necessarily fall under the realm of being a product of the fall. Birth pangs, however, are an entirely different thing. See 2.
      2. Pain during childbirth was the result of a curse that followed the fall. The main thrust behind this curse was that what was once a joyous mandate, to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), is now coupled with a trying reality: that immense joy of the birth of a child (participating in the creative power of God) will now be achieved through physical pain, making the experience a torment, but then sweet. Mary was naturally spared from the torment of the curse.
      3. Dr. Miravalle’s quote best sums up why Christ would have passed through the Virgin, thus sparing her from all birth pangs. If Christ is true Light, and Mary is the purest of vessels, then such a light would pass through so pure a vessel with absolute ease, and it is right and fitting that this is so.

      I hope that helps. God Bless you!

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