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I know Catholic dogmas must be accepted to become Catholic. They are non-negotiables as distinguished from doctrines or theological opinions. I know most Catholic dogmas relate to some essential truth about God or Jesus which must necessarily be true in order for Christianity to be true. Others are refutations of various heresies.

Since one must accept dogmas in order to join the Church, what essential truth of or about Christianity relies on Mary's perpetual virginity? If she had relations with Joseph at some point after their marriage, what truth of or about Christianity would be damaged? How is Christianity diminished if she did not remain a virgin?

  • Are you simply asking why she remained a virgin after she gave birth? – Geremia Oct 18 '16 at 15:03
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    Arandor, why must it be (as you appear to hypothesize) that some other essential truth about Christianity relies on this? What would be wrong with an answer that simply stated, "The teaching is a dogma not because its failure would cause some other fault in Christianity, but simply because the Church wants to emphasize its truth"? – Matt Gutting Oct 18 '16 at 18:55
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    @MattGutting St Thomas Aquinas, and other church fathers, seem to have addressed that ... rather than reject a heresy, it appears to have been issued to clear up some diverging (and unofficial beliefs) among some of the faithful. It's a clarification of a Pre Nicene belief/theology. (So yeah, your frame challenge seems to have hit the mark). – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '16 at 19:50
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I believe the O.P.'s question can be interpreted as, “Why is belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity considered so important that the Church makes it an excommunicable offense (heresy) to deny it?”

The first observation to make is that all Marian dogmas have their root in the fundamental Marian dogma, which is that she is Theotokos, the Mother of God. This extraordinary grace exalts Mary—in the order of grace—over all other creatures, even the angels. Only Jesus Christ, who is hypostatically united to the Word is more “full of grace” than she. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 498.)

The dogma of the Theotokos would not have so much importance in itself if it did not follow as a direct consequence of the Hypostatic Union and the so-called communion of properties. Mary can be rightly called Mother of God precisely because Jesus Christ’s human nature is so closely united to the Word (that is, the Divine Person of the Son), that his human actions and states are rightly attributed to his Divine Person. It is perfectly orthodox to say that God—that is, the Divine Son—was born of a woman; grew up in Nazareth; ate, drank, spoke, and laughed; died on a cross; and rose from the dead. For this reason, Mary is rightly and properly called Mother of God. This is, in fact, the solemn teaching of the Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431. The Council Fathers reasoned that, in effect, if they denied Mary the title of Mother of God, they would be denying Jesus’ complete unity as a Person. (See CCC 466.)

In teaching the perpetual virginity Mary, the Church is in no way belittling the beautiful vocation of marriage, nor is she suggesting, in the slightest way, that the marital act and the begetting of children is in any way evil.

However, the Divine Motherhood of Mary forges a special relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, which the Scriptures strongly suggest was meant to be exclusive.*

For example, there was no particular reason why the Incarnation could not have occurred by means of the normal process of human generation. The consummation of marriage and the procreation of children are far from sinful, and God could easily and fittingly have used these means to achieve His ends.

However, in fact—as all orthodox, Nicene Christians agree—He chose the even more excellent step of being born to a virgin—that is, without making use of the carnal union. Again, that is not because the carnal union is evil, but because the Virgin Birth is a more manifest sign of the immensity of the Incarnation. (As I am sure the O.P. is aware, the Scriptures abundantly bear witness to the Virgin Birth—to the fact that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father—especially Luke 1 and Matthew 1.)

The Holy Spirit, by “overshadowing” Mary (see Luke 1:35) with His power, effectively consecrated Mary and her womb to Himself. Again, it was not necessary for God to ask Mary to refrain from consummating her marriage after the Virgin Birth (just as it was not necessary for the Incarnation to take place by means of a virginal conception, and just as it was not strictly necessary for our salvation for God to become incarnate at all). It was, however, most fitting that the womb, once consecrated to God, should remain for Him alone.

Finally, there is also the simple matter of fact. The perpetual virginity of Mary is a historical fact, whose truth or falsehood depends not on theological speculations, but on Mary’s actual condition when she was on the earth. Either she consummated her marriage with Joseph, or she did not. The testimony of the Church Fathers on this question, however, is unanimous. They called her Aeiparthenos, the Ever-Virgin (see CCC 499). As witnesses we might mention the Protoevangelium of James (c. 145 A.D.), a non-Canonical but pious book from the second century; Origen of Alexandria; Hilary of Poitiers; Athanasius; Epiphanius of Salamis; Jerome; and son. (See the article on the perpetual virginity of Mary from Catholic Answers for actual excerpts from the Fathers.)

In other words, the Church affirms the dogma for the simple reason that it corresponds to historical reality.

It should be mentioned that although the Church maintains Mary’s virginity before, after, and even “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499), the Church does not insist on teaching that the virginity is a physical one (as if the birth of our Lord had no effect on Mary’s body; e.g., that she did not suffer from the pains of childbirth). There is a pious tradition to that effect, but it is not part of the faith.


* At the request of Jon the Architect, here are some other references to the Scriptures that help paint the picture that relationship of Mary to the Holy Spirit was exclusive. (Please note that I said that the Scripture suggests this, without being explicit. The definitive justification for the dogma comes from Sacred Tradition—i.e., the witness of those who knew Mary and Jesus, whose testimony was passed on orally.)

  • Mary asks the angel how the birth of the Messiah is to take place. (Luke 1:34.) Since Mary is already engaged to be married to Joseph (Luke 1:27), that would be a strange question if she were not intending to remain a virgin.

  • In all of the Old Testament, the places in which God has a special presence are deemed inviolable: the Holy of Holies of the Temple (especially when God appeared in the cloud there; see, e.g., Leviticus 16:2), the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:6-7), theophanies like the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:4), and so forth. None of these presences, however, comes anywhere near the extraordinary presence of God that came to be at the Incarnation. It is likely that Joseph (a faithful Jew steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures) would have feared to consummate his marriage with Mary for this reason.

  • That's the best answer I've heard so far. Thank you. – Arandor Oct 18 '16 at 21:05
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    Can you add support to the statement that the scriptures strongly suggest that the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit was meant to be exclusive? – Jon the Architect Oct 18 '16 at 21:26
  • @KorvinStarmast, The only scriptural reference I see in those quotes is Ezekiel 44:2, which is far from a "strong" reference, especially considering the context of verse 1, and especially verse 3. – Jon the Architect Oct 19 '16 at 12:24
  • @KorvinStarmast, I didn't introduce the idea of scriptural basis to this question, I'm asking for the author of this answer to provide the scriptural strength that he claims is evident. If he didn't explicitly make that claim, I wouldn't be asking for clarification. – Jon the Architect Oct 20 '16 at 2:33
  • @JontheArchitect I added some more Scriptural references, as you requested. – AthanasiusOfAlex Oct 20 '16 at 7:28
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Why is it dogma? For the same reason that the Nicene-Constantinople Creed was established and made official.

It is an explicit statement of what the Church believes (as seen from the point of view of the Church, which speaks for the Faithful). Pope Pius IX felt that it was important to spell this out. Some beliefs held by the faithful, on the unofficial level, had not been confirmed officially for centuries. In this case some were in conflict so a resolution was provided, and was grounded in extant Catholic theology, belief, and tradition.

Previous to the proclamation of the Dogma, some Marian traditions and beliefs fell into Opinio Tolerata.

Before 1854, when Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, some Catholics were of the opinion that Mary was conceived without sin, while others doubted this privilege as being given to Mary. Once this decree was promulgated on December 8, 1854, Catholics must believe that the Immaculate Conception is dogma.

In layman's terms, the Magisterium finally stopped procrastinating since there were diverging traditions. This answer goes into some detail about various Marian beliefs (which go back to the third century) taking more formal shape and being codified, but the motivation was spelled out in Ineffabilis Deus. @Geremia presented this in answer to a different question here, extracted from ID(extracted from ID).

Supreme Reason for the Privilege: The Divine Maternity

And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son -- the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart -- and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds.

... additional reasons:

…for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion

This is consistent with what St Thomas Aquinas presented in the Summa Theologica, regarding Whether Christ's Mother remained a virgin after His birth?(():

... It is written (Ezech. 44:2): "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." Expounding these words, Augustine says in a sermon (De Annunt. Dom. iii): "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?" ... we must abhor the error of Helvidius, who dared to assert that Christ's Mother, after His Birth, was carnally known by Joseph, and bore other children. For, in the first place, this is derogatory to Christ's perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring. (Note: Aquinas goes on to raise three other objections, see the link).

Credit is due to @Geremia for providing the link that addresses the full objection to Helvidius' position, and further substantiation for the belief that Mary remained virgin after the birth of Jesus.

A summary of comments on this topic from other theologians and doctors of the Church can be found here, as well as commentary on the Protoevangelium of James (circa 120 AD) which takes the same position.

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If she had relations with Joseph at some point after their marriage, what truth of or about Christianity would be damaged?

She would've sinned by violating her vow of virginity. However, she is sinless.

The prophecies (e.g., Isiah's) that the Christ would be born of a virgin wouldn't have been fulfilled.

How is Christianity diminished if she did not remain a virgin?

St. Thomas Aquinas, answering the question of whether Christ should have been born of a virgin, gives several reasons (Summa Theologica III q. 29 a. 1):

It was fitting that Christ should be born of an espoused virgin

  1. for His own sake
    1. lest He should be rejected by unbelievers as illegitimate: wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: "How could we blame Herod or the Jews if they seem to persecute one who was born of adultery?"
    2. in order that in the customary way His genealogy might be traced through the male line. Thus Ambrose says on Lk. 3:23: "He Who came into the world, according to the custom of the world had to be enrolled Now for this purpose, it is the men that are required, because they represent the family in the senate and other courts. The custom of the Scriptures, too, shows that the ancestry of the men is always traced out."
    3. for the safety of the new-born Child: lest the devil should plot serious hurt against Him. Hence Ignatius says that she was espoused "that the manner of His Birth might be hidden from the devil."
    4. that He might be fostered by Joseph: who is therefore called His "father," as bread-winner.
  2. for His Mother's sake
    1. because thus she was rendered exempt from punishment; that is, "lest she should be stoned by the Jews as an adulteress," as Jerome says.
    2. that thus she might be safeguarded from ill fame. Whence Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: "She was espoused lest she be wounded by the ill-fame of violated virginity, in whom the pregnant womb would betoken corruption."
    3. that, as Jerome says, Joseph might administer to her wants.
  3. for our sake.
    1. because Joseph is thus a witness to Christ's being born of a virgin. Wherefore Ambrose says: "Her husband is the more trustworthy witness of her purity, in that he would deplore the dishonor, and avenge the disgrace, were it not that he acknowledged the mystery."
    2. because thereby the very words of the Virgin are rendered more credible by which she asserted her virginity. Thus Ambrose says: "Belief in Mary's words is strengthened, the motive for a lie is removed. If she had not been espoused when pregnant, she would seem to have wished to hide her sin by a lie: being espoused, she had no motive for lying, since a woman's pregnancy is the reward of marriage and gives grace to the nuptial bond." These two reasons add strength to our faith.
    3. that all excuse be removed from those virgins who, through want of caution, fall into dishonor. Hence Ambrose says: "It was not becoming that virgins should expose themselves to evil report, and cover themselves with the excuse that the Mother of the Lord had also been oppressed by ill-fame."
    4. because by this the universal Church is typified, which is a virgin and yet is espoused to one Man, Christ, as Augustine says (De Sanct. Virg. xii).
    5. since the Mother of the Lord being both espoused and a virgin, both virginity and wedlock are honored in her person, in contradiction to those heretics who disparaged one or the other.
  • What is the evidence that Mary took a vow of virginity? – brasshat Oct 18 '16 at 3:50
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    Do we have any record of such a vow? Even extra-Biblical evidence like the Church Fathers? Or is it a "derived" truth? The answer from Aquinas for why Jesus must have been born of a virgin does not appear to touch on why she must have remained a virgin. Other than breaking a vow, is there any other reason she must have remained a virgin? Why did the Church feel it necessary to make this an essential to the faith? – Arandor Oct 18 '16 at 4:05
  • @brasshat catholic.com/tracts/mary-ever-virgin – Marc Oct 18 '16 at 12:40
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    @Arandor If someone comes to the Church and believes everything except this one point, they are turned away. That's not quite true. Q&A that addresses this issue. As to the matter of marriage, I suggest you consult the canon law and look at a few of the Q&A here about marriage, which is a sacrament, as seen by the Catholic Church. Each marriage is its own case to consider ... the question being asked "was the sacrament conferred?" – KorvinStarmast Oct 20 '16 at 12:20
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    @Arandor The point of dogma/doctrine is that if you have difficulty with belief or understanding, that is different from public and defninitive denial. – KorvinStarmast Oct 20 '16 at 12:23
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If she had relations with Joseph at some point after their marriage, what truth of or about Christianity would be damaged?

Helvidius believed that Mary knew Joseph carnally after the birth of Jesus and that she bore other children. Helvidius's error is

  1. derogatory to Christ's perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring.
  2. an insult to the Holy Ghost, whose "shrine" (sacrarium) was the virginal womb, wherein He had formed the flesh of Christ: wherefore it was unbecoming that it should be desecrated by intercourse with man.
  3. derogatory to the dignity and holiness of God's Mother: for thus she would seem to be most ungrateful, were she not content with such a Son; and were she, of her own accord, by carnal intercourse to forfeit that virginity which had been miraculously preserved in her.
  4. would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph, to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel's revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost.

—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III q. 28 a. 3 "Whether Christ's Mother remained a virgin after His birth?" c.

  • Why the downvote? – Geremia Oct 18 '16 at 16:09
  • I think this answer is getting closer. It seems that the answer lies in how the vessel that carried the divine should be treated. I've heard references to the new Ark of the Covenant. In a way, she became the Holy of Holies. It probably makes the most sense coming from a Jewish perspective. – Arandor Oct 18 '16 at 16:26
  • I also want to be clear that this is a sincere question. I am currently in RCIA, but I have been a Southern Baptist my entire life. I have worked through pretty much every issue. This has been a sticking point. I have Tim Staples book Behold Your Mother which I am working on as well. – Arandor Oct 18 '16 at 16:35
  • @Arandor Check out Mother of the Saviour: And Our Interior Life by Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. – Geremia Oct 18 '16 at 18:56
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    St. Ambrose et al. interpret Ezech. 44:2 as referring to her perpetual virginity: "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." – Geremia Oct 18 '16 at 19:31

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