Perpetual Virginity: Dogmatic Status and Meaning

Q: Should the perpetual virginity of Mary be considered a dogma? Also, does the doctrine convey a deeper meaning?

A: This doctrine underwent a period of discussion until the late fourth century when general consensus emerged. The earliest witness to the perpetual virginity of Mary seems to appear in the apocryphal Protogospel of James (circa 150). Tertullian (d, circa 220) denied the virginity of Mary after Jesus' birth. Origen (d 254), by contrast, taught Mary's perpetual virginity. In the East, St. Athanasius strongly defended Mary's virginity after the birth of Jesus. Shortly after, St.Basil the Great (d, circa 380) accepted Mary's perpetual virginity and claimed that it reflected the general sense of believers, though he did not consider it to be a dogma. Around the same time in the West, Jovinian and Helvidius denied the perpetual virginity while Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 420) and Augustine (d. 430) staunchly defended it. After this time, monasticism spread widely and the value of consecrated virginity became better known and widely accepted. General agreement and clear teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary seem to have followed.

The official acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 553 refer to Mary as aeiparthenos (i.e. ever-virgin). For example, an anathema against the 'three chapters' condemns those who deny:

that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her ...
These statements were not made in reference to a direct discussion of Mary's virginity. Hence, some argue that this statement was not a dogmatic definition, even though it was issued within a definitory document. For Catholics, such definitions may be made by the Episcopal college, in communion with its President, the Bishop of Rome, or by the Pope in virtue of his Presidency over the entire Episcopal college. Such definitions must be derived, at least implicitly, from the revelation closed at the death of the Apostles.

Though not an Ecumenical Council, the Lateran Council of 649 convened by Pope Martin I also issued an important statement affirming Mary's lifelong virginity:

If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.
After Constantinople II the title was universally accepted by the Church. Though already present in certain liturgical contexts, references to Mary's perpetual virginity were then propagated universally in the liturgical life of the Church. Hence, questioning the dogma's status as a 'definition' does not appear to be constructive. Note that some teachings which belong to the deposit of faith may not have been confirmed by a formal dogmatic definition (e.g. immortality of the soul?). This is often the case with teachings which have never been seriously contested.

There are other norms by which the Church may have assurance that a teaching has been infallibly revealed by God: consensus fidelium (i.e. general agreement among the entire body of believers "from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful" [Lumen Gentium #12]); and "universal ordinary magisterium" (i.e. frequent authoritative teachings affirming one perspective on a topic given by the Pope alone, or by the episcopate in general). On the topic of Mary's perpetual virginity, we have double assurance that the teaching may be considered as infallibly revealed in light of the statement of the fifth Ecumenical Council and by virtue of its constant use in the life of the Church afterwards (i.e. consensus of the faithful and universal ordinary magisterium).

The dogma of Mary's perpetual virginity is not merely a reference to a historical fact. This historical fact has a a deeper meaning, a spiritual dimension. It speaks of the radical character of her God-relatedness. The life of Mary exists only for, in and through God. Further, it speaks of the singularity of the Christ event. Finally, note that this teaching illustrates Mary's character as type of the Church:

Following the example of Mary, the Church remains the virgin faithful to her spouse ... For the Church is the Spouse of Christ, as is clear from the Pauline Letters (cf. Eph. 5:21-33; 2 Cor. 11:2), and from the title found in John: "bride of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9). If the Church as spouse "keeps the fidelity she has pledged to Christ," this fidelity, even though in the Apostle's teaching it has become an image of marriage (cf Eph. 5:23-33), also has value as a model of total self-giving to God in celibacy "for the kingdom of heaven," in virginity consecrated to God (cf. Matt 19:11-12; 2 Cor.11:2). Precisely such virginity, after the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, is the source of a special spiritual fruitfulness: it is the source of motherhood in the Holy Spirit. (Mother of the Redeemer #43)

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