Thursday, April 8, 2010


Mary's perpetual virginity. Ever a popular sentiment amongst Catholics, but one which seems at odds with reality.

Before I respond to the Catholic blither and blather of Mary's reproductive prudery, let's survey what it is Catholics believe on this count.

First, Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus' birth. Second, after Jesus was born, Mary never engaged in sexual congress with her husband, Joseph. Third, Mary's perpetual virginity is distinct from the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the former refers to Mary's inconsummate marriage to Joseph, the latter to Mary's being born into the world without the stain of original sin. And finally, fourth, Mary's virginal status means that Jesus had no siblings. While being an obvious point, it is important to note number four because it provides a ready-steady defense for the use of the words "the brothers of Jesus" (Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3) to allegedly mean "cousins of Jesus".

If the gospel accounts of Jesus' arrival in this world are true, then there is no difficulty believing that Jesus' mother was a virgin before his birth, and during his birth. It was customary of Mary's time -- and is even sensibly encouraged today -- to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage. Mary was betrothed (i.e., engaged, to use modern terminology) to Joseph when she became pregnant with Jesus, which, to Joseph, appeared as infidelity until he was reassured by an angel that all was well, and that Mary was pregnant by God's doing.

This in itself seems like a peculiar infidelity that God would impregnate another man's wife (I think Zeus was prone to the same misgivings, so no surprise a similar motif would show up in a Hellenistic culture). Leaving that aside, however, if it was that Mary was born without sin, why couldn't God simply have used Mary and Joseph's eventual union to create another sinless person, but this time one that also happened to be God? Afterall, he created people from dirt; I'm fairly certain he could funnel himself through an egg.

All of the above notwithstanding, unless Mary remained betrothed to Joseph forever after, that is, unless Mary and Joseph together decided they would never get married but just live together raising Jesus, it seems unlikely, even supremely implausible that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth. Two things come to mind at this point:
  1. Mary and Joseph were religious Jews, and so, would not have lived together as a couple without being married; not unless they wanted to be stoned to death (recall the historical time and prevailing religion) for being considered fornicators;
  2. It has always been the sexual act that seals a marriage, that makes the covenantal bond between two people and the God/gods they are loyal to.
Given number two above, we would do well to keep in mind a tiny, niggling, insignificant triffle of a point: Catholics, by and large, believe that Scripture is God's inspired and inerrant word (set of writings) that is necessary and sufficient for understanding all matters of faith and morals. So let's just assume for a moment that Mary actually was married to Joseph, but the two remained celibate and thus preserved Mary's virginity. I think it would be fair to say that Joseph, unless he was one of the eunuchs Jesus later referred to (Matt. 19:11-12), might have "burned with passion" for Mary. And if Joseph had committed himself to live inconsummately with Mary, all-the-while lusting after her, it would seem that we have a couple of plausible contradictions:
  1. Mary and Joseph were witholding from each other, even knowing that at least one of them was desirous. This is a sin (see 1 Cor. 7:5) because it invites temptation into the marriage, and should only be done for a limited time; time enough for prayer and fasting, and then they were to enjoy marital bliss again.
  2. If it was sinful to withold from each other, then Mary's immaculate status is negated because she would've been sinning to enter a permanent, sexless marriage where one or both of the people involved would be sexually ungratified and desirous.
"Ah!" says the Catholic apologist, "you cannot hold Mary to a standard that God instituted through St. Paul approximately 35 years after Christ's death." Well, sure I can. And here's how: we're talking about what Catholics have always believed, not what they've ever known. There is not a single source in either scripture or tradition that can point to de facto proof that Mary never consummated her (eventual) marriage to Joseph. Thus what Catholics believe about Mary's permanent virginal status has no relationship with anything actually known. It is a supposition that lends Catholics a strange comfort, but seems at odds with reality when parsed by a slight flexing of practical logic.

There is a direct relationship between Mary's assumed lack of original sin, and the Catholic claim that she was/is ever a virgin. The doctrine of original sin found its first expressions in the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, when he was arguing with Gnostics. But the champion of the doctrine of original sin, however, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Augustine reasoned that
original sin was both an act of foolishness (insipientia) and of pride and disobedience to God of Adam and Eve. He thought it was a most subtle job to discern what came first: self-centeredness or failure in seeing truth. The sin would not have taken place, if satan hadn't sown into their senses "the root of evil” (radix Mali).
But apparently Satan did plant a 'root of evil' into our nature such that our whole humanity -- that is, those things that constitute our unique human characteristics -- was forever wounded, depleted, broken. Characteristics such as our intelligence, affectations, sexual desires, and will were permanently enfeebled, according to Thomas Aquinas' rendering of Augustine. This enfeeblement is passed down, or transmitted, from Adam and Eve to all of humanity by way of concupiscence; that is, desire. The next logical step from desire being the transmitter of human enfeeblement is to suggest that the sexual reproductive act (the only way new people are made) is the purveyor of original sin.

This in itself does not make the sexual act wrong in Catholic theology. However, because Mary was to be the bearer of God himself, there could be no taint of sin in her. Hence Mary's parents' copulation, somehow, didn't transmit a wounded nature to Mary (how convenient, yet, sadly, entirely presumptuous). Mary was, it is supposed in Catholicism, therefore perfect in her human nature. Thus for Mary to engage in coitus with Joseph would imply the possible transmission of human sinfulness to any offspring copulating may produce. Since God had housed himself in Mary's womb, any post-Jesus children would be (conspicuously) bad, because apparently God and people shouldn't intermingle -- which brings up a whole other set of issues. For example, a smattering of gnosticism. But I digress...

Mary was above all base nonsense such as human sexuality; that seems to be the implication. In her perfection (lack of sin), she would not debase herself with the thrusts and stilted grunts of her imperfect husband. Never! The connection is clear: human woundedness is continued through sexual reproduction, which is beneath perfect people like Mary, so she abstained from conjugal relations with Joseph, who in turn probably experienced unbridled sexual frustration and was, due to an attrition of sorts, consigned to masturbation (which is also a sin in Catholicism). That is, unless by way of physical proximity to Mary, Joseph was able to master his sexual urges and content himself with a faux marriage; an unlikely possibility given the matrimonial customs of the time.

Before moving on to my last point, I will review, in short, the gist of my first three points:

  1. Mary would not have lived in a false marriage arrangement because this would implicate Mary and Joseph on the grounds of sexual sin: the surrounding community would've viewed a couple living together, and having a child together out of wedlock, as fornication.
  2. Mary's blameless and perfect nature would be blatantly stained by purposefully, and knowingly entering into a sexless marriage where her weaker, imperfect husband, Joseph, would burn after her with lust; i.e., Mary would've purposefully been tempting Joseph to sin.
  3. Mary's ever-virgin status, when distilled to its constituent elements, constitutes a form of gnosticism: she could not have copulated with one who bears the stain of original sin because her womb held the son of God; the perfection of God and Mary could not intermingle with the imperfection of a man.
These three criticisms give credit to the more sensible notion that Mary probably enjoyed her marriage as fully as any healthy married pair should. They also lend strength to the argument that Jesus most likely had brothers that were not simply 'cousins', but flesh-and-blood brothers. It is argued that when the Greek word adelphoi (brothers) was written into Scripture, it wasn't with the intention to convey a direct statement about the status of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas being related to Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). Heavens, no! Why keep things simple? Instead, concoct a story that they're all just 'cousins', or half-brothers from a previous relationship Joseph enjoyed. This is a blatant violation of Occam's principle of parsimony, and highlights the useless convolutions Catholics are willing to accept in order to hold in high regard a dogma that has no foothold in reality.

And this, in itself, begs an obvious question. If it is true that Joseph had enjoyed a previous marriage, and then entered into a marriage with Mary, why would he want to give up one of the specific pleasures marriage allows: sex? Unless it can be argued from silence -- as assuredly Joseph's possible previous marriage is an argumentum ex silentio -- that Joseph was done with coitus funness when he set his eyes on Mary, there's nothing to support the notion that Joseph would willingly enter into a sexless marriage. At the same time, to give credit where it's due, there's nothing to support the notion that Joseph would not enter into a sexless marriage. In either case, we have absolutely no evidence at all to conclude on the virginal status of Mary, and Joseph's willingness or not to entertain an inconsummate marriage.

In conclusion, I think that the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity is purely a fabrication. Yes, many people have believed it for a good long time. However, the duration of a belief is no argument for its validity. Many people believed that the earth was flat for quite some time, but that is clearly not the case. From the reasons given by the Catholic church for Mary's eternal virginity, I have reflected some practical conclusions that show the weaknesses in the expectation that Mary was inconsummate in her marriage to Joseph. I could go on drawing further conclusions from the beliefs set out by Catholics, but it seems sufficient to say that Mary's constant virginity is a proposition based in silence, that when examined in a little detail becomes self-contradictory, disregards Occam's razor, highlights Catholic antisexualism, and therefore has no basis in reality.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I've been reading your blog for a while because I thought you were someone I knew (but that you had just grown some facial hair). Turns out I don't think I know you.

Can I offer my Catholicism and theological training to clarify a comment you made?

Before entering into the point of your post, you seek to correctly identify what Catholics believe about Mary. Your second point reads:

"Second, after Jesus was born, Mary never enjoyed sexual congress with her husband."

So far as I am familiar with the belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, the teaching has less to do with her evaluation of the physical activity she had as a married person, and more to do with the absence (if undestood physically) of such activity.

I hope this helps.

Kane Augustus said...


Thank you for commenting. I'm glad you read my blog. I've visited yours a few times, too. What we have in common is that we were both instructed by Dr. V.

Thank you for pointing out my ambiguity in the statement you quoted. You're right: the doctrine has more to do with the absence of sexual congress in Mary's relationship with Joseph. I should've written, "Second, after Jesus was born, Mary never engaged in sexual congress with her husband."

I will make the correction in my article.

Take care,

Randy said...

Okay I admit I only started to really read this, but this struck me...

" fourth, Mary's virginal status means that Jesus had no siblings."

If you think logically about this for a second.

First assume Mary truly was a virgin and never engaged in ANY sexual contact. I see that as leaving three possibilities for Jesus' conception.

1) Semen residue from bedsheets, towel etc... Let's face it if Joseph was not getting any he was rubbing it out.

2) Divine intervention. God placed a baby there.

3)Hermaphrodite. Mary was a hermaphrodite. I have read many years ago about a young woman that had a child even hough she was not sexually active. I actually think it was more then one. Anyways the doctors discovered that this normal looking woman was an hermaphrodite with complete working male reproductive organs internally! Mary could have been the same...

So looking at the above three possibilities I would say in order of likelihood (in my opinion):

- 3 Hermaphrodite
- 1 rubout residue
- 2 Divine intervention

Of course one could also argue that it was divine intervention making Mary a hermaphrodite. Of course this just further supports that Mary being a hermaphrodite is the most likely situation.

So assuming Mary was an harmaphrodite then Jesus could have had siblings without Joseph ever assaulting Mary's heavenly gates...

Skeptigirl said...

So, if there was no penetration, could Mary have enjoyed other sexual activities that would not strip her of virginity? I don't care nearly as much about Josephs needs, sorry, must be the being a woman part.

I never even heard of the concept that Mary would not have had sex, AFTER Jesus's birth until I was a teenager. That is a pretty cruel punishment, which is not supported by scripture. As my father always says, Catholics do not follow the Bible but their theology. No insult to Catholics, just an observation, nothing wrong with that, beleave what you want, but poor, poor Mary.