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Motivation

I have difficulty, personally, believing in the perpetual virginity of Mary. I do not begrudge anyone else believing that doctrine; I cannot imagine that it affects a person's salvation either way. But, to the best of my understanding, a straightforward reading of Matthew 1.25 rules it out:

but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

On the other hand, I do respect the authority, indeed the infallibility, of the Ecumenical Councils. I was a bit shocked, then, to read today that the Fifth Ecumenical Council, alias the Second Council of Constantinople, made belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary mandatory for anyone calling himself a Christian. I would be grateful, therefore, for any help in resolving my consequent cognitive dissonance.

I would prefer, however, for any given answer to this question to focus on the interpretation of the canons of Second Council of Constantinople, and not my reading (or misreading) of scripture. Matthew 1.25 has been discussed many times elsewhere; the Second Council of Constantinople has not.

The Second Council of Constantinople

According to this translation, Canon 2 of the Fifth Ecumenical council states:

If anyone shall not call in a true acceptation, but only in a false acceptation, the holy, glorious, and ever-virgin Mary, the Mother of God, or shall call her so only in a relative sense, believing that she bare only a simple man and that God the word was not incarnate of her, but that the incarnation of God the Word resulted only from the fact that he united himself to that man who was born; if he shall calumniate the Holy Synod of Chalcedon as though it had asserted the Virgin to be Mother of God according to the impious sense of Theodore; or if anyone shall call her the mother of a man or the Mother of Christ, as if Christ were not God, and shall not confess that she is exactly and truly the Mother of God, because that God the Word who before all ages was begotten of the Father was in these last days made flesh and born of her, and if anyone shall not confess that in this sense the holy Synod of Chalcedon acknowledged her to be the Mother of God: let him be anathema.

After a bit of reflection, I think I understand from this:

  1. The bishops who drew up this canon believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.
  2. The canon anathematises those who fail to acknowledge Mary as Mother of God but it does not anathematise, explicitly at least, anyone failing to acknowledge Mary as Ever-Virgin.

Canon 2, on the other hand, does seem to come a bit closer to an explicit anathematisation of those denying Mary the title of Ever-Virgin:

If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.

But, again, the anathema, at least to my mind, seems to be aimed at a Christological heresy rather than a Mariological one, at whether, through Mary, God was born of a woman, rather than at whether the Mother of God ever slept with her husband. Although it is also clear that the bishops present at the council did believe in Mary's perpetual virginity.

(Mary is also called Ever-Virgin in several other canons, but I do not have anything to say about those canons which I have not said already.)

Summation

I wholeheartedly believe that Mary is the Mother of God in precisely the Christological sense outlined in the canons of the Second Council of Constantinople. Therefore, it seems that, despite not believing in the perpetual virginity of Mary, I am not liable to any of the anathemas (anathemata?) of said canons. But is that just casuistry and/or wishful thinking on my part?

(One final thing: it seems that the text of the canons was not preserved in the original Greek, but only in a single Latin manuscript, which was not rediscovered until the 1980s. Does this have any bearing on the authority of the canons in the form in which we have them today?)

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  • I think your reading of Matthew is improper. “Until” doesn’t require a reversal of condition (it’s much more likely that Matthew intended to show Mary and Joseph did not have intercourse prior to the birth of Jesus) and firstborn only indicates a special Jewish privilege of any first child, regardless of if they had other siblings
    – Luke Hill
    Dec 15, 2023 at 1:36
  • 5
    @LukeHill we have other questions about how to interpret that verse, let's not debate it here please.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 15, 2023 at 4:19
  • 1
    I would read those canons exactly the same. And some research in the Catechism did not tell me otherwise. But why do you limit yourself to Constantinople II? If you believe the ecumenical councils are right, do you only take those before the great schism, of do you take all catholic ones? If you want some kind of proof for the virginity of Mary, derived from a council text, I can help you. But if it has to be from Constantinople II, I don’t see how that will be done.
    – ABM K
    Dec 15, 2023 at 10:21
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    @ABMK Inasmuch as my personal opinions are important to the original question: I am a practising Roman Catholic, but I find it difficult to accept any council called after the Great Schism as truly ecumenical - and therefore binding on all subsequent Christians. Therefore, I can if necessary reject - at least within the rules of my own mind - any post-Schism canon which requires belief in Mary's perpetual virginity. Pre-Schism canons worry me more, however, hence the question.
    – Tom Hosker
    Dec 15, 2023 at 15:53
  • Two things then: as a practising RC you are not really at liberty to reject the post-schism councils, but I think you know that :) But are you looking for a pre-schism council that says anything about Mary’s perpetual virginity? If it helps, I will gladly search for it the coming days. (RC Deacon, anything to help the faithful ;)
    – ABM K
    Dec 15, 2023 at 17:14

2 Answers 2

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To answer the OP, not really.

Here's Canon II.

If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema. Canons

The confession is that the Word of God has two nativities, one from forever and one from His flesh from Mary. The canon may further describe their belief in Mary (Mother of God, always a virgine), but the canon's confession is about the nature of Christ Jesus.

The whole council was devoted to defining Christ Jesus.

If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema. Canon X

The phrase ever-virgin does appear in this council (see Doctrine). But the belief in the nature of Christ does not depend on Mary's life subsequent to Christ's birth. In other words, many in the early church defined the brothers and sisters of Christ "after the flesh" or from Mary.

So again, to answer the OP, the Council was about the nature of Christ, not the nature of Mary.

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Do the canons of the Second Council of Constantinople anathematise those who believe that Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage?

The short answer is yes.

We must remember that the word anathema has undergone a few different definitions over the its’s interpretation, but generally would mean an excommunication at this epoch in church history.

Thus those who believed that Joseph and Mary consummated their marriage would be considered anathematized (excommunicated), as they did not believe what the Church professed to be true.

This is not to say that some may have doubts or reservations about this subject matter, while still conforming to the mind of the Church. Doubts are not fixed belief!

Being excommunicated does not necessarily pose problems to one’s salvation, as even saints have been excommunicated for various reasons. I generally look on an excommunication as saying that the Church disagrees with certain actions or opinions of various individuals and does not want this to continue.

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    The thing is, the question was if Constantinopel II state this. To be honest, your answer, however correct in itself, does not answer that question
    – ABM K
    Dec 15, 2023 at 14:52
  • @ABMK I beg to differ.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 15, 2023 at 15:09
  • No doubt :) I don’t think we need to agree on this
    – ABM K
    Dec 15, 2023 at 15:37
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    For what it's worth, I agree with @ABMK. The question is not whether - broadly speaking - church teaching confirms the perpetual virginity of Mary. The question is whether the canons of the Second Council of Constantinople anathematise anyone for not believing in Mary's perpetual virginity, and, with all due respect, you haven't answered that.
    – Tom Hosker
    Dec 15, 2023 at 15:39

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