Alice von Hildebrand’s recent article entitled “Revelation and Curiosity” goes a long way to place the debate over the true meaning of modesty in the larger context of philosophical and theological thought. She highlights the basic distinction between supernature (God and the order of grace) and nature. The precise character of that distinction has always been essential to theological discourse, and the relation between grace and nature has often been the subject of unfettered speculation, to the detriment of the faith. (See, for example, Pelagianism and Jansenism.)
Faith and Reason
I believe that the distinction and relationship between supernature and nature is at the basis of much theological controversy today. I have often made the point, for example, that at times apologists do not sufficiently distinguish their work from Theology and Catechesis. Apologetics is the work of natural reason used to prove the existence of God and the possibility of supernatural revelation, and to show that supernatural truths revealed by God are compatible with reason. Sometimes, when we speak of Apologetics we refer to “proving the faith.” But strictly speaking the faith cannot be proven by reason because by reason alone supernatural truths, such as the Virgin Birth, cannot be comprehended. Ultimately, grace is the cause of Theological Faith. We are only certain of the supernatural truths God has revealed because He has given us the grace and we have assented to that grace.
This is not to say that reason is extraneous. Not at all. In the Catholic view of things, faith and reason are mutually compatible, although through faith we are able to know things that we could not know by reason alone. Hence, faith is both reasonable and transcends reason, just as grace builds on nature but also transcends it. Reason shows us that what God has revealed is compatible with nature. In other words, God is not arbitrary. The natural law written in our hearts is confirmed by supernatural revelation not contradicted by it. Pope Benedict, in his speech at the University of Regensburg has drawn our attention to the rupture between faith and reason: in the West by the denial of faith on the pretext of science; and in Islam by the fideism by which God’s revelation contradicts the natural law.
Apologetics, Theology and Catechesis
Apologetics is a kind of precursor to theology. Its principle tasks are to prove the existence of God and to show that supernatural revelation is possible, tasks that can be accomplished by reason alone. Secondarily, apologetics shows the reasonableness of what God has revealed.
However, Apologetics and Theology are truly distinct. Whereas the work of Apologetics is prior to faith, Theology begins with the assent of faith and builds on it. So also Catechesis builds on faith. One who has been received into the catechumenate is preparing for Baptism because he has a conviction of the true faith. Even though that person does not have the Theological Virtue of Faith, which is infused at Baptism, he must nevertheless be making acts of faith with the help of actual graces. Catechesis then extends beyond Baptism as a preparation for the other sacraments, and then again as a kind of ongoing deepening of the faith for those who desire to grow spiritually, always on the presupposition that the whole deposit of the faith is already held to be true.
Recipes for Disaster
In practice, however, especially in times when secularist ideology holds sway, the work of Apologetics, Theology and Catechesis are mixed together by the same teacher, very often in the same presentation. This is perfectly legitimate and necessary because even though the person catechized has already assented to the faith, his formation is often spotty, and the spirit of the world is continually challenging his convictions.
And so, while the mixture of these disciplines is legitimate and necessary, it demands that the teacher be aware of their distinction and not confuse Apologetics with Catechesis and Theology. The danger of confusing the disciplines lies in the possibility of the imbalance between faith and reason. This is precisely the warning given us by Pope Benedict at Regensburg. When Apologetics is substituted for Catechesis, reason usurps the place of faith: nature is substituted for supernature. This is the fault of Western rationalism. When Catechesis is substituted for Apologetics, the legitimate aspirations of reason are not met: supernature does not build on nature but supplants it. This is the fault of Islam.
Clearly, the modern Western tradition favors reason over faith. Thus, Apologetics is left in the precarious position of defending the faith without turning Apologetics into what is commonly meant by the word “apology.” Since, ultimately grace is the cause of Theological faith, the rationalist mind will have to cease to be rationalist before it can assent to the truths revealed by God. Simply indulging its vice is no solution; rather such indulgence only enables the vice. An apologist for Theism has said: “You can lead an atheist to evidence, but you can’t make him think.” In reference to our problem, we might return nearer the original metaphor and say: “You can lead a rationalist to living water but you can’t make him drink.” Thinking is not enough. Enthusiasm is not enough. In the end, one must assent to something he does not fully understand, and only the power of grace can make this possible.
As it turns out, the subject of Christian chastity is particularly susceptible to “apologies” and rationalism, since it is such a hot button issue, and one that is impossible to assimilate without grace. As long as one is closed to grace, no amount of reason is going to solve problems with chastity. We are tempted to look for shortcuts, tempted to go the extra mile to make chastity look appealing. The whole question here is one of balance. On the one hand, the Church has recognized the need to present chastity in a way that does not reduce it to negative precepts, but no matter how it is presented, as long as its fullness is not adulterated, it remains a “hard saying” (cf. Jn 6:60).
The truths of the faith are supernatural and while they are compatible with reason they absolutely transcend it. Super, from the Latin, means “above and beyond.” To “comprehend” something means to “hold it in one’s hand.” That we will never do with the truths of the faith, and it is why, as Alice von Hildebrand points out, that curiosity in respect to what God has not revealed, can be such a vice.
A Hard Saying
The idea of the Blessed Virgin ejecting a bleeding placenta at the birth of Jesus was surely intended to aid one’s assent to the truth that marriage, sexuality and procreation are beautiful and holy realities. But God deprives us of what indulges curiosity precisely because we must assent on the authority of His word. The Virgin Birth is a case in point. It is very significant, I believe, that an apologist is trying to defend the “hard saying” of chastity by minimizing the “hard saying” of the Virgin Birth.
Among Catholics there is much confusion as to the precise meaning of the Virgin Birth. It is not to be confused with the Virginal Conception of Our Lord. The Church, from the earliest times, has articulated the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady as pertaining to three distinct moments: before the birth of Jesus (ante partum), during the birth of Jesus (in partu), and after birth of Jesus (post partum). Virtually every time the magisterium has spoken on the subject, this threefold distinction is made. This teaching is derived from the early fathers of the Church, who maintained, defended and made the teaching a universally held truth of the Catholic Church.
The Virginity of Our Lady “before the birth of Jesus” (ante partum) refers to the Virginal Conception, namely, that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not by the seed of man. That is fairly clear. It is also clear that the Virginity of Our Lady “after the birth of Jesus” (post partum) refers to the fact that Our Lady never had sexual relations, even after the birth of Jesus, a fact that many Protestants deny. For many Catholics, unfortunately, these two points say everything that is to be said about the Virginity of Our Lady and such Catholics proceed to explain away the Virginity of Our Lady “during the birth of Jesus” (in partu). They say that the Virginity of Our Lady in partu, just refers to her “spiritual virginity,” an idea that is contrary to magisterial clarifications. Or, they say, that the “Virgin Birth” is a misnomer for “Virginal Conception.”
Explaining It Away
But the middle moment of Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity is real and its reality is the only viable reason why the Church would continue to insist on a threefold distinction as opposed to a twofold one. In fact, unless the Virginity of Our Lady in partu means exactly what the Fathers of the Church said it means, namely, miraculous birth, then it means nothing at all and as a statement of faith is completely superfluous and meaningless.
Theologians can speculate all they want on what does or does not belong to the essential matter of the Church’s definition of the Perpetual Virginity, but the only reason anyone would doubt that the birth of Jesus is any less miraculous than the conception is a lack of faith. People will cite this or that theologian, whose convoluted explanation of the Virgin Birth allows for a natural birth, including pain and afterbirth, but they cannot cite any ancient authorities or magisterial affirmations. They do not want to believe the full truth of the Virgin Birth because it is hard to believe—and because it is not convenient doctrine for Apologetics.
In respect to this modern attitude toward the Virgin Birth, reason has supplanted faith, Apologetics has trumped Theology and Catechesis. Dr. von Hildebrand is exactly correct:
That a virgin could give birth and remain a virgin would never have crossed man’s mind. It is a fact inaccessible to human reason. It has a divine seal: it is mysterious, miraculous, can only be known by revelation, accepted on faith. It calls for trembling adoration, the only adequate response.
In man’s craving to penetrate behind the “veil” and know what is in no way necessary for our salvation, many are tempted – unwittingly – to cross the abyss separating the supernatural from the purely natural.
The assertion that Our Lady ejected a bleeding placenta is doubly rationalist. It firstly, vacates the meaning of the Virgin Birth, and secondly, it does so precisely to make Christian marriage and parenthood look more appealing. Somehow a natural birth of Jesus from Mary is supposed to show forth the glory of human procreation. Unfortunately, this “glory” is void of the supernatural meaning that God intended for the earthly birth of His Only Begotten Son.
The Great Sign
As Dr. Von Hildebrand says the Virgin Birth is a “divine seal,” a sign that is exactly parallel to and no less miraculous than the Resurrection. The Church has fought vigorously against every attack on the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady, just as She has fought every attack on the Resurrection: because these are the principle signs that God has chosen as “divine seals” confirming the identity and mission of the Son of Mary.
Christian chastity shares in the character of the Virginity of Mary, whether that chastity involves perfect continence or marriage and parenthood. Chastity has a supernatural character. It is not merely natural. And that means that it can only be lived through the power of God’s grace.
It is a necessary and commendable endeavor of apologists to formulate better arguments and more appealing presentations of the faith in order to more effectively persuade human minds and hearts. However, apologists need to know their limits and to mortify their curiosity. Specifically, in respect to chastity, and more so toward the chastity of Our Lady, silence and reverence is in order.
Sometimes discussions on the blogs concerning Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity have sounded like clinical examinations, as though the True Ark of the Covenant were brought into a gynecological theater and placed on the examination table. No one seems to have an inkling of how inappropriate this is. The Ark is placed behind the veil of the Holy of Holies for a reason. Uzzah was struck dead when he touched the Ark for a reason. God teaches us how to live the holy mystery of chastity through silence and reverence for a reason.
The saints have meditated on the beauty of the Blessed Virgin since the beginning of the Christian era. Nothing is more beautiful than God’s masterpiece. Yet none of the saints had the slightest inclination to remove the veil, or to speculate on the Virgin Birth in a clinical manner so as to makes its truth more palatable. Silence in the face of such a mystery is true mysticism. It is a place where those who persevere might find true contemplative ecstasy.
Sex talk is not going to solve the problem of chastity. Too much talk vacates mystery. The wordy prosaic explanation of a poem or painting is not the same thing as admiration. Oftentimes such explanations ruin the aesthetic effect of art. The signs God has provided need to be treated with the appropriate admiration. St. John Chrysostom said it best in a Christmas homily:
Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence, and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him Who Works.
The art of Apologetics is not just about what to say and how to say it. It is also about when to be silent and make an opportunity for reverence. Conversion is God’s work. Sometimes we just need to get out of the way.
I see your well rested!
Thank you for this article.
I do disagree somewhat with Dr. Hildabrand’s strong separation of nature and supernature. I tend to the de Lubacian side of the debate, which acknowledges a difference, yet notes that man, ultimately, has a supernatural end. If that were not the case, then we would run into all sorts of theological problems.
I do agree, however, that either too strong of a distinction, or too much of a conflation can lead to faulty apologetics and theology. The principle of the analogia entis is so very important to keep in mind when doing theology, apologetics, whatever, for it is a Christological principle that is at the core of everything we say and do cathechetically, theologically, etc. I have said it before and will say it again, the issue with many of the Westians is the fact that they lack a sufficient Christology in which Christ is the lens through which all theology occurs (they tend to see the body and sexuality as the lens for reading doctrine, which is the result, I think, of too great a conflation of nature and supernature).
I am not sure why you assume Dr. von Hildebrand would deny man a supernatural end. I did not pick that up from her article. I think the distinctions she made are necessary and ultimately reconcilable with a supernatural end for man.
Distinctions do not vacate the mystery of the conjunction of nature and grace. Even here faith has to take us beyond what we can explain. God predestined man for grace, and it is still gratuitous. Man is truly free, but can do no good without God. Words fail.
Doesn’t what you’re saying touch on the rather Greek idea of apophasis (I hope that’s the right word)? From what I understand, the Eastern Churches have always been better at silence when it comes to speculations on things not specifically revealed. (That’s what they say at least 🙂 )
Case in point: the fate of unbaptized infants. The West has had all kinds of Saints weigh in on the question, some going into minute detail, but the Greek Fathers’ attitude was mostly “we don’t know what happens, so let’s just pray for the little ones.” (Which is more or less what the Catholic Church officially says and practices).
But don’t we in the Western world have a tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything? I know I am certainly uncomfortable with uncertainty, though I need to learn to accept it.
VIRGINITY OF OUR LADY IN PARTU:
The Painless, Miraculous Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ
“In union with the whole Church we celebrate that day when Mary without loss of her virginity gave the world its Savior.”
– Communicantes to Eucharistic Prayer I for the Octave of Christmas
That Mary, by a singular miracle of God, gave birth to the Christ Child without experiencing any birth pangs or loss of her physical integrity, is a very ancient teaching of the Catholic Church.
In the Church Fathers
This theme recurs in the writings of the Church Fathers, Doctors, Saints and Popes. They all overwhelmingly taught that Mary’s birth-giving was painless and did not physically injure her. They saw this implied and foreshadowed in the following passages of Sacred Scripture:
Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. This prophecy states that a virgin would both conceive and bear. Therefore, the Fathers argued, Mary must have remained a physically-intact virgin in the act of childbearing as well as in His conception.
Isaiah 66:7 – Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. These words are spoken of the daughter of Zion, which is an antitype of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ezekiel 44:1-3 – Then he brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looketh toward the east; and it was shut. Then said the LORD unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.
Song of Songs 4:12 – “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” Early Christians interpreted these two passages as signifying that the womb of the Virgin Mary is “shut” and “sealed” by God, not to be “opened” in natural childbirth. They said that Christ passed through her shut womb using the same divine power with which He later appeared to His disciples in a room where the doors were shut (St. John 20:19).
Luke 2:7 – And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Most women, after the long, intense rigors of childbirth, are much too tired and weak to actually clothe and tend to the baby in that manner. This is why birth attendants are necessary. Yet the Bible says that Mary did all these things by herself, right after giving birth; no midwife is mentioned as aiding her. Therefore, early Christians saw this statement from St. Luke as an indication that Mary had an easy, pain-free childbirth.
The following are more quotes from Church Fathers that express belief in Mary’s painless, miraculous childbearing:
“Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her childbearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God.” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 19; c. 107 AD)
“Who loves you is amazed
and who would understand is silent and confused,
because he cannot probe the Mother
who gave birth in her virginity.
If it is too great to be clarified with words
the disputants ought not on that account cross swords with your Son
(St. Ephraim the Syrian, Songs of Praise, 1, 2; )
“Believe in the Son of God, the Word before all the ages, who was…in these last days, for your sake, made Son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary in an indescribable and stainless way,-for there is no stain where God is and whence salvation comes…” (St. Gregory of Nazianz, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:45; 381 AD)
“According to the condition of the body (Jesus) was in the womb, He nursed at His mother’s breast, He lay in the manger, but superior to that condition, the Virgin conceived and the Virgin bore, so that you might believe that He was God who restored nature, though He was man who, in accord with nature, was born of a human being.” (St. Ambrose of Milan, Mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, 6:54; 382 AD)
“Though coming in the form of man, yet not in every thing is He subject to the laws of man’s nature; for while His being born of a woman tells of human nature; virginity becoming capable of childbirth betokens something above man. Of Him then His mother’s burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy.” (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity 388 AD?)
“This is the virgin who conceived in her womb and as a virgin bore a son.” (Pope Siricius, 390 AD)
“Who is this gate (Ezekiel 44:1-4), if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity…. There is a gate of the womb, although it is not always closed; indeed only one was able to remain closed, that through which the One born of the Virgin came forth without the loss of genital intactness” (St. Ambrose of Milan, The Consecration of a Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 8:52; c. 391 AD)
“It is not right that He who came to heal corruption should by His advent violate integrity” (St. Augustine, Sermon 189:2).
“(Christ) transcends, indeed, the miracles of all besides, in being born of a virgin, and in possessing alone the power, both in His conception and birth, to preserve inviolate the integrity of His mother: but that was done neither before their eyes nor in them. For the knowledge of the truth of such a miracle was reached by the apostles, not through any onlooking that they had in common with others, but in the course of their separate discipleship.” (St. Augustine, Tractate 91:3).
“She brought Him forth without the loss of virginity even as she conceived Him without its loss.… in the Lord Jesus Christ born from the womb of the Virgin, because His birth was miraculous, nature was not for that reason different from ours. For He who is true God, is likewise true man, and there is no falsehood in this unity, as long as there are alternately the lowliness of man and the exaltedness of the Divinity. For, just as God is not changed by His compassion, so man is not destroyed by His dignity. For each nature does what is proper to it with the mutual participation of the other; the Word clearly effecting what belongs to the Word, and the flesh performing what belongs to the flesh.” (Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian)
“Jesus Christ, true God and the same true man proceeded, that is, was born, while his mother’s virginity remained intact: for the Virgin remained such in bearing him just as she had in conceiving him” (Pope Pelagius I, Letter to King Childebert I)
“O mystery! I see miracles, and I proclaim the Godhead: I perceive sufferings, and I do not deny the humanity. For Emmanuel opened the doors of nature as man, but as God did not break through the bars of virginity” (St. Proclus of Constantinople, Oratio 1, no. 10; PG 65:692A).
How can death claim as its prey this truly blessed one, who listened to God’s word in humility, and was filled with the Spirit, conceiving the Father’s gift through the archangel, bearing without concupiscence or the co-operation of man the Person of the Divine Word, who fills all things, bringing Him forth without the pains of childbirth, being wholly united to God?… It was fitting that the body of her, who preserved her virginity intact in childbirth, should be kept from corruption even after death. She who nursed her Creator as an infant at her breast, had a right to be in the divine tabernacles…. It was fitting that she who saw her Son die on the cross, and received in her heart the sword of pain which she had not felt in childbirth, should gaze upon Him seated next to the Father. (St. John Damascene, Second Homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God)
So far as He was born of woman, His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while so far as He had no father, His birth was above the nature of generation: and in that it was at the usual time (for He was born on the completion of the ninth month when the tenth was just beginning), His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while in that it was painless it was above the laws of generation. For, as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it, according to the prophet who says, Before she travailed, she brought forth, and again, before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child (Isaiah 66:7). The Son of God incarnate, therefore, was born of her, not a divinely-inspired man but God incarnate…. But just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still virgin, in like manner also He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed (Ezekiel 44:2). (St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14)
The Patristic evidence is overwhelming. The only early Church writers who rejected this belief were Tertullian, Jovinian and Helvidius, all of whom were heretics.
In the Writings of the Scholastics
St. Thomas Aquinas also argued in his Summa Theologica for a painless childbirth that did not injure Mary’s physical integrity:
Whether Christ’s Mother was a virgin in His birth?
Whether Christ was born without His Mother suffering?
Pope Pius XII informs us that St. Bonaventure drew a parallel between Mary’s intact childbearing and her later Assumption:
“Along with many others, the Seraphic Doctor held the same views. He considered it as entirely certain that, as God had preserved the most holy Virgin Mary from the violation of her virginal purity and integrity in conceiving and in childbirth, he would never have permitted her body to have been resolved into dust and ashes.” (Munificentissimus Deus 32; the footnote cites St. Bonaventure’s De Nativitate B. Mariae Virginis, Sermo V.)
St. Bonaventure also believed that Mary did not suffer while giving birth to Christ:
O God, my God: I will glorify thee by Thy Mother. For she hath conceived thee in virginity: and without travail she hath brought Thee forth (Psalter of the BVM, 62).
In Magisterial Documents
The Catholic Church has issued official declarations of this doctrine in her Councils. The Synod of Milan (390 AD), with St. Ambrose of Milan presiding, condemned the teaching of the heretic Jovinian that Mary did not give birth as a physical virgin:
“Christ. . . being God came to earth in an unusual way, as He was born from the immaculate Virgin. . . . But they say perversely: she conceived as a virgin, but she did not give birth as a virgin. So a virgin could conceive, but a virgin could not give birth, though the conception always precedes and the birth follows. . . . They should believe the Apostles’ Creed, which the Roman Church always guards and preserves. . . . This is the Virgin who has conceived in the womb, the Virgin who has brought forth her Son. For thus it is written: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (Is 7:14); for he says not only that a virgin shall conceive, but also that a virgin shall bring forth. For what is the gate of the sanctuary, that outer gate looking towards the East, which remains shut (Ezek 44:1f.)? Is not this gate Mary, through whom the Savior entered this world . . . who conceived and brought forth as a virgin?”
The Lateran Council (649 AD), with the approval of Pope St. Martin I, declared:
“If anyone does not in accord with the Holy Fathers acknowledge the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary was really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time, and without seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God in the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned.”
The Creed of the Council of Toledo XVI (693 AD) professes: “And as the Virgin acquired the modesty of virginity before conception, so also she experienced no loss of her integrity; for she conceived a virgin, gave birth a virgin, and after birth retained the uninterrupted modesty of an intact virgin.”
In Cum Quorumdam (1555 AD), the infallible decree of Pius IV (during the Council of Trent) he condemns the Unitarians for claiming (among other things) that: “the same most Blessed Virgin Mary was not the true Mother of God, and did not always persist in the integrity of her virginity, namely, before bringing forth, at bringing forth, and always after bringing forth.”
In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council proclaims: “This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest… also at the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (57). A footnote on this statement cites the Lateran Council’s decree, cited above.
In Official Catechisms
The Church’s official catechisms also contain this teaching. The Catechism of the Council of Trent (also known as the Roman Catechism) states:
“But as the Conception itself transcends the order of nature, so also the birth of our Lord presents to our contemplation nothing but what is divine.
“Besides, what is admirable beyond the power of thoughts or words to express, He is born of His Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity, just as He afterwards went forth from the sepulchre while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which His disciples were assembled, the doors being shut; or, not to depart from every-day examples, just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from His mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity. This immaculate and perpetual virginity forms, therefore, the just theme of our eulogy. Such was the work of the Holy Ghost, who at the Conception and birth of the Son so favoured the Virgin Mother as to impart to her fecundity while preserving inviolate her perpetual virginity….
“To Eve it was said: ‘In pain you shall bring forth children’ (Gen. 3:16). Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate, she brought forth Jesus the Son of God, without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.” (“The Creed” Article III)
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church further states: “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. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” (CCC 499)
In the Words of the Popes
Modern popes continue to teach this doctrine. In his encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943), Pope Pius XII said of Mary:
“Within her virginal womb Christ our Lord already bore the exalted title of Head of the Church; in a marvelous birth (mirando partu edidit) she brought Him forth as the source of all supernatural life, and presented Him newly born, as Prophet, King and Priest to those who, from among Jews and Gentiles, were the first to come to adore Him..”
In a later encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam (1954), he cites a Byzantine prayer that says:
“O just, O most blessed Joseph, since thou art sprung from a royal line, thou hast been chosen from among all mankind to be spouse of the pure Queen who, in a way which defies description, will give birth to Jesus the king.”
Pope Paul VI states in his 1967 Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary (Signum Magnum):
“Therefore, the life of Joseph’s pure spouse, who remained a virgin ‘during childbirth and after childbirth’ — as the Catholic Church has always believed and professed and as was fitting for her who was raised to the incomparable dignity of divine motherhood — was a life of such perfect union with the Son that she shared in His joys, sorrows and triumphs” (Part I).
and later in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (1974):
“The Christmas season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific motherhood of her whose ‘inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world.’ (par. 5)
In a General Audience of Jan 28, 1987, Pope John Paul II cited the above text from the Lateran Council:
“Mary was therefore a virgin before the birth of Jesus and she remained a virgin in giving birth and after the birth. This is the truth presented by the New Testament texts, and which was expressed both by the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553, which speaks of Mary as ‘ever virgin’, and also by the Lateran Council in 649, which teaches that ‘the mother of God…Mary…conceived [her Son] through the power of the Holy Spirit without human intervention, and in giving birth to him, her virginity remained incorrupted, and even after the birth her virginity remained intact.”
On June 10, 1992, during a talk in Capua, Italy, he further stated:
“It is a well-known fact that some of the Church Fathers set us a significant parallel between the begetting of Christ ex intacta virgine [from the inviolate Virgin] and his resurrection ex intacto sepulcro [from the sealed tomb]. In the parallelism relative to the begetting of Christ, some of the Fathers put the emphasis on the virginal conception, others on the virgin birth, others on the subsequent perpetual virginity of the Mother, but they all testify to the conviction that between the two saving events – the generation–birth of Christ and his resurrection from the dead – there exists an intrinsic connection which corresponds to a precise plan of God: a connection which the Church led by the Spirit, has discovered, not created.
. . . . [I]t is necessary for the theologian, in presenting the Church’s doctrine on Mary’s virginity to maintain the indispensable balance between stating the fact and elucidating its meaning. Both are integral parts of the mystery: the meaning, or symbolic value of the event is based on the reality of the fact, and the latter, in turn, reveals all its richness only if its symbolic meanings are unfolded.”
In his Urbi et Orbi message of Christmas 2005, Pope Benedict XVI stated:
“With the shepherds let us enter the stable of Bethlehem beneath the loving gaze of Mary, the silent witness of his miraculous birth.”
In the Liturgy
We also find this belief in the liturgy, both East and West, old and new. In the Byzantine liturgy, on the feast of the Synaxis of the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God tells the Christ Child: “As thou hast found my womb, so thou hast left it.” One of the prayers on the Feast of the Nativity states: “According to His good pleasure, by a strange self-emptying, He passed through thy womb, yet kept it sealed.”
The Tridentine Rite mentions this mystery in the Responsorium to the fifth Lesson of the Feast of. Christmas: “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, whose womb abideth intact, has today given birth to the Savior of the world.” The Postcommunion for the Second Christmas Mass at Dawn states: “May the new life of this sacrament, O Lord, always restore us, especially on the Nativity of Him Whose wondrous Birth has overcome the old nature of our manhood”. A special communicantes in the Roman Canon for the Octave of Christmas commemorates “that most sacred night (or day) in which the inviolate virginity of Blessed Mary brought the Savior into this world.”
In the current (Pauline) Rite, that communicantes added to Eucharistic Prayer I similarly reads: “In union with the whole Church we celebrate that day when Mary without loss of her virginity gave the world its Savior.” Also, in the Mass of “Mary at the Foot of the Cross”, we find this prayer:
“In your divine wisdom, you planned the redemption of the human race, and decreed that the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam: as she became his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, so, by a new gift of your love, she was to be a partner in his passion, and she who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church.”
In Popular Devotion
This doctrine does not mean that Mary never experienced any pain at all during her life. The Church acknowledges both that Mary did not suffer in giving birth to Our Lord and that she suffered greatly due to the mystical “sword” that pierced her soul and sees no conflict between the two. She is still Our Lady of Sorrows, but it is interesting to note that the Nativity of Christ is not listed among Mary’s Seven Sorrows – but among her Seven Joys!
Here is a list of the Seven Sorrows of Mary:
1. The Prophecy of Simeon. Luke 2:25-35.
2. The Flight into Egypt. Matthew 2:13-15.
3. The Child Jesus Lost in the Temple. Luke 2:41-50.
4. Mary meets Jesus carrying the cross.
5. Mary at the foot of the cross. John 19:25-30.
6. Mary receives the body of Jesus.
7. Mary witnesses the burial of Jesus.
Note that the Nativity of Christ is strangely absent. Now, here is a list of the Seven Joys of Mary:
1. The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin and the Incarnation of Our Lord. Luke 1:26-38.
2. The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin to her cousin, St. Elizabeth. Luke 1:39-45.
3. The Nativity of Our Lord. Luke 2:6-12.
4. The Adoration of the Magi. Matthew 2:1-2, 10-11.
5. The Child Jesus Found in the Temple. Luke 2:41-50.
6. The Risen Lord Appears to Mary. Mark 16:1-7.
7. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.
Note that the Nativity of Christ *is* included on this list. The Church has always taught that the Birth of Our Lord was a source of joy for Mary, *not* sorrow and pain. She was already participating in our redemption by bringing the Redeemer into the world; she did not need to suffer at the same time. The suffering would come later, as per Simeon’s prophecy.
If Mary had suffered labor pains as part of her subordinate role in the redemption of mankind, then the Nativity would be one of her SORROWS! Yet the Church has NEVER recognized the Nativity as one of the Sorrows of Mary, which is but a further indication that the Church does not believe that she suffered during that event.
Granted, the Seven Sorrows and Joys are devotions, not official doctrinal texts. However, devotional traditions must be in line with the teachings of the Church, or else they are condemned and suppressed. The Church scrutinizes that kind of thing. This is, admittedly, just a supporting argument, further evidence of the mind of the Church on this matter. The quotes above from Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium have already established that this is an official Church teaching.
Well said. An underlining current that I got from your message is that we (and when I say we, I must start by pointing the finger at myself) have been raised to be very ‘casual’ in our speech. This casual talk is comfortable but it lacks reverence and due respect for supernatural persons. We’re too afraid to sound ‘lofty’ and ‘holier than thou’ so instead, we can almost be guilty of defaming or shaming that which is truly holy.
Yet, on the other hand, many of us have been trying so hard to fill in the gaps of our poor catechesis that, as you said, we’ve blurred the lines between apologetics and theology. Very interesting.
I like your line: “The art of Apologetics is not just about what to say and how to say it. It is also about when to be silent and make an opportunity for reverence. Conversion is God’s work. Sometimes we just need to get out of the way.”
It’s that constant struggle of knowing when to speak up, when to ask, HOW to reverently discuss and when to just plain shut up and “be in the Lord’s presence”…. requiring patience.
Praying for God’s Blessings during Advent.
“If Mary had suffered labor pains as part of her subordinate role in the redemption of mankind, then the Nativity would be one of her SORROWS! Yet the Church has NEVER recognized the Nativity as one of the Sorrows of Mary, which is but a further indication that the Church does not believe that she suffered during that event.”
While I agree with the statements of the Doctors and Fathers in your post, I think this is quite a leap in speculation. Just about any woman who has a child, and especially a woman who loves God and wants to do His will, would always think of the birth of their children as the greatest JOYS in their life, not sorrows, no matter how painful the delivery was.
Any mothers have any input on this?
(Note: I am not denying the absence or diminishment of labor pains for the Blessed Mother, just saying that if there were pains, I doubt one could count it among her Sorrows)
I believe Our Lord Himself has already settled the matter. Bill is right:
Our Lady was free of the curse attached to childbirth because as such childbirth is a sorrow, not a joy until it is over. It is not natural childbirth that is the joy, as any woman will tell you, but the offspring, that is, the child. The birth of Our Lord was pure joy for Our Lady. St. Bonaventure wrote:
I guess I see what you mean. If it’s in reference to the actual physical act of giving birth, and the physical pain experienced from it, then I guess it is a “sorrow”.
I spent some good time contemplating the first visual image you placed in this post. Too many of us want to be the one up speaking and too few wish to be the listening disciples. The fact that Our Lady herself wasn’t a “tell all” biblical figure there was great humility and keeping of things in her heart. It is a difficult age to be a disciple. Thank you for your visuals! Ave Maria!
Thank you for the excellent article. As someone involved with an RCIA program, I find most useful the distinctions you draw between Apologetics, Catechesis and Theology and (embarrassingly) see where I’ve been tempted to do one when I should be doing the other. Now I can see why the head of our team is wary of those of us with an apologetic bent.
This also serves to remind me that there is a reason we veil the holy, and it’s a good reason and our culture has a knee-jerk tendency to rend veils for no other reason than that they are veils.
Please understand everyone that I am not attacking anyone or any teaching in the questions that follow. They are simply questions related to a lot of confusion on my part. Helpful answers would be appreciated.
1). By using the expression “vacates the meaning of the Virgin Birth” in reference to the placenta, does the author mean that “virgin” mean that nothing ever went into the brith canal (obvious and easy understood) but also that nothing ever came out? Did the Blessed Virgin never have a period? Did the Blessed Virgin never have to expel fertile mucus? Was she sterile, except for the overshadowing?
2) If Jesus miraculously passed directly from the womb to the outside of his mother’s body, what happened to the placenta?
3). The author denigrates the glory of human birth, says that a normal birth “is void of the supernatural meaning that God intended for the earthly birth of His Only Begotten Son. ” I do not understand this at all. A normal birth would emphasize his true humanity, would it not? How is it that a normal birth goes against one of the key revelations, that he was fully human and fully divine. The normal birth seems to me to support the fully human side of that revelation, does it not?
4) I have seen pictures and read about the “miraculous” birth of Bhudda. It is is said he did not pass through the birth canal. What is the essential difference between this (the authour’s) interpretation of the birth of Jesus and the birth of Bhudda? I tell you in all seriousness, this is not a disrespectful or flippant question … I just don’t see the difference.
5). I have read many (a dozen or so) of the references kindly posted by a previous respondent and I thank you for those. However, having read them, it seems that many can be interpreted as saying nothing at all about the actual birth process, but all refer to The Blessed Virgin’s remaining virginal despite the birth, that is that the miracle refers to her maintenance of virginity, and not to a miraculous birth process. To put it another way, she had a baby in the normal way, and this next bit requires a miracle, and yet remained a fully intact virgin. Seems to me this preserves both the miraculousness of the birth, yet maintains the fact that Jesus was fully human. If this is a possible view, then a bloody placenta on the floor is not an issue at all. What precisely would be wrong with such a view of the teaching?
6) Why is the belief that passage through the birth canal not itself rationalistic? How, in Catholic teaching, are natural birth through the birth canal and virginity related? I’ve always thought they weren’t, and I thought that was because of my devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
I am sorry for the formatting of my previous post. Only the first paragraph should have been a block quote.
[No problem. Fixed it for you. frangelo]
Peter Fournier @
December 29, 2010 at 11:07 pm
1.) Virginity in partu means exactly the only thing it could mean or it does not mean anything. That is the sense of my assertion that denying the obvious sense of the Virgin Birth vacates its meaning.
The doctrine of the Church reveals the object of faith but does not satisfy our curiosity. In the article of Alice von Hildebrand, to which my post refers, the subject treated is the stupendous revelation of the Virgin Birth relative to the details to which we are not privy and about which reverence imposes silence.
This is why Dr. von Hildebrand quotes Cardinal Arizinze, who says:
and why I quote St. John Chrysostom, who writes:
2.) See answer to question 1. And I add that a miracle is not a “process” as you suggest in question 5 below. For instance, when the Church attempts to authenticate an allegedly miraculous cure it uses as one of its criteria the instantaneous character of the healing. God can use a process and instrumental causality, but need not, and a miracle is only clearly verifiable where he does not use an instrumental process.
The Church affirms both the miraculous character of the conception and the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not the father of Jesus. Our Lady conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit. In heaven Jesus has a Father and no mother and on earth a Mother and no father. That is the theological tradition. There is not a single saint, father, doctor or magisterial document that attempts to explain either the nature of the conception or birth, precisely because both are miraculous in the strict sense of the term. It is this kind of Virginity that was chose by God to be the sign.
3.) A natural birth is not a miraculous birth. A miraculous birth does not denigrate “the glory of human birth,” any more than a miraculous conception denigrates human procreation. Or do you doubt the miraculous character of Our Lord’s conception because to affirm it “denigrates the glory” of procreation? If not, your assertion is a non sequitur.
The fact that Our Lord was conceived and born miraculously does not make him any less human, or, again, do you doubt that He was conceived virginally? What matters here is what God revealed, not how we feel about it.
To say that what has been revealed can be arbitrarily dispensed with because it is not as “key” as another point of doctrine is a flawed method of theological thought.
4.) The author is not interpreting, just stating the teaching of the Church. I am not familiar with the mythology associated with Buddha. On the basis of the information that you have provided, the difference would be that what is revealed by God to be miraculous in the case of His Son is true, while what is asserted by man to be extraordinary in reference to Buddha is false. Are you suggesting that Christian revelation is somehow related Buddhist mythology?
5.) Again, a miraculous birth is not a process. Question 5, taken in context with the rest of your remarks, namely, that a supernatural birth “denigrates the glory of human birth,” suggests a contradiction in terms. You want it both ways: natural and supernatural. But the object of faith, that is, what God reveals, is the supernatural character of the birth. The references you have sighted are clear. No father, doctor, council or pope has ever suggested anything remotely like what you are imagining. What you suggest is completely arbitrary.
Again, if a supernatural birth vitiates the fact that Jesus was fully human, then why would a supernatural conception, that is, virginal conception not do the same? Do you believe in the virginal conception of Christ? By your logic the lack of marital relations in the conception of Christ would denigrate the humanity of Christ and the dignity of marriage.
6.) I am not sure what you are asking in Question 6. I think that the attempt to explain away the Virgin Birth is rationalistic, because one who makes such an attempt prefers to liken the Virgin Birth to a natural process rather than to believe in the power of God that cannot be comprehended. More importantly the denial is rationalistic because it favors a contrived human explanation over what God has actually revealed.
Natural Birth and Virginity are mutually exclusive at every turn, first because in all cases except one, virgins do not conceive and so do not give birth. And in the one exception both the conception and birth are miraculous, not natural.
Again this is not an interpretation. It is the teaching of the Church.
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