Ever since the HERALD published the article about the
birth of Christ and whether or not Mary experienced the pains
of birth, you have printed letters which discussed both sides
of the issue. What is the real position on the issue of the
painless birth of Christ? A reader in Vienna
To address this issue, which indeed has caused much attention
in the editorial pages of the HERALD lately, we must first
focus on our outstanding of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
We as Catholics firmly believe that Mary is "ever virgin."
The Catechism asserts, "The deepening faith in the
virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Marys
real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth
to the Son of God made man" (No. 499). Given this teaching,
the perpetual virginity of Mary has traditionally been
defended and examined in three parts: Marys 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
FathersSt. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, Pope St.
Leo the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Gregory Nyssa.
For example, the Catechism quotes St. Augustines
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" (No.
510). Marys 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. Lk
1:26-27, Mt 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
Marys virginity after the birth of Christ. In a
previous article concerning whether Jesus has 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
middleMarys 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 from 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 Marys physical integrity.
For instance, Pope St. Leo the Great said, "
brought him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she
conceived him without its loss
. (Jesus Christ was) born
from the Virgins womb because it was a miraculous
." 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 Marys 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
" (Lk 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 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 Marys 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 Marys 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 Faith) warned, "Several
theological studies have been published in which the delicate
problem of Marys 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 the Second Vatican Council asserted that Christs
birth "did not diminish His mothers virginal integrity
but sanctified it" (No. 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" (No. 63). Fr.
Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of
Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish,
both in Alexandria. Copyright ?1998 Arlington
Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.