“Ever Virgin”?

Editor’s Note: In the May/June, 2012 issue of The Catholic Answer, Father Ray Ryland answered a question regarding the birth of Our Lord and the status of the Blessed Virgin Mary as “ever virgin.” 

His reply generated a number of letters. The original question from Carolyn Blanscet, in Port Orchard, Wash., was as follows: 

“My question is this: I heard on Catholic Radio today that Jesus was born in the same manner that anyone of us was born . . . but if Mary was ‘ever Virgin,’ would that not negate her virginity because of the ‘opening of the womb’? I have always thought that the birth of Jesus was just as mysterious and spiritual as His conception by the Holy Spirit. I hope you can give me a clear answer to this question. The only mention of the birth was, ‘She brought forth her Son, Jesus and wrapped him in swaddling clothes’ (Lk 2:7, KJV).”  

Father Ryland responds: The Catholic Church proclaims the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: ante partum, in partu, perpetuo post partum (Virgin before childbearing, in childbearing, forever after childbearing). The Church has never specified the meaning of in partu. 

In a recent column I wrote, “The opening of the Virgin’s womb, and her bringing forth through labor her Divine Son, has nothing to do with her virginity.” A number of our readers have written to object to this statement. Unanimously they declare that to speak of Our Lady’s having born Our Lord naturally is to deny her perpetual virginity. 

Our correspondents assure us Our Lord’s birth must have been miraculous, because Our Lady remained a virgin in childbearing. And then they tell us the proof that Jesus did not undergo a natural birth is the fact that our Blessed Mother remained virgin. Respectfully, I must point out that this argument both goes in a circle and begs the question — that is, it takes for granted that which is to be proved. Thus it fails to have probative value. 

As noted, the Church is silent on the point at issue. Who is to say Our Lady would lose her virginity if she bore her Divine Son in the natural way. What does it mean to be “virgin”? The only dictionary definition (OED and otherwise) of “virgin” is a person, particularly a woman, who has not had sexual intercourse. Suppose a young woman, chaste from birth, had a medical problem whose treatment involved vaginal penetration. Would we tell her afterward she is no longer a “virgin”? Surely not, if we use the term in its correct meaning. 

Notice what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “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” (No. 499). 

“The act of giving birth”: Does that really sound like saying that at the end of gestation Our Lord simply appeared miraculously and the Blessed Mother was only a spectator of the event? 

Now: Why hold the opinion I expressed in my column? At issue is the doctrine of the Incarnation itself, the heart of our faith. 

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ: perfectly (fully) human, perfectly (fully) divine Son of God. Why did he “empty” himself by fully taking on human nature? He thereby carried out God’s plan for the salvation of the human race and, indeed, of the cosmos. 

God’s having taken on human nature in the Person of His Son is a common theme in the writings of the Church Fathers. Athanasius and others commonly voiced the dictum, “that which was not assumed [not undergone, not taken on] has not been redeemed.” We believe that in His human nature Jesus Christ is exactly like us, but without sin. 

If Jesus had not entered the world through His Blessed Mother’s birth canal, the Incarnation would be incomplete. In this basic human experience he would not have been one like us. The birth process itself would not have been redeemed: “that which was not assumed has not been redeemed.” 

The Church has no word for us on this matter under discussion, so we can form our opinion. However, we must try to make certain that our opinion in no way conflicts with what the Church does teach. I believe Our Lady forever remained a virgin after having given natural birth to her Divine Son.  

“Crucified or Risen?”

In the July/August 2012 column of TCA Life, a question is raised as to the meaningfulness of having the figure of the Risen Christ on a cross rather than a figure of the Crucified Christ (“Crucified or Risen”). 

What the image of a Risen Christ on the cross says to me is that the Catholic (or any follower of Christ) should now place a renewed emphasis on living a resurrected life of service and good will and thereby help establish the kingdom of God on earth. 

This imagery does not negate the suffering of the Crucified Christ, but rather symbolizes how our resurrected living can fulfill the purpose of that suffering.  

Bill Roche, McAllen, Texas