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by Gary J SibioIf a Catholic [1] and a Protestant were to get together and talk about Mary and her virginity, it is likely that the discussion would soon become confused as a result of their vastly different ideas on the subject. The Protestant would say that this means that she remained a virgin until the birth of Jesus and afterwards had a normal married life with Joseph including having children by him. A Catholic, however, believes that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. I hope to present the case of the Catholic Church here, demonstrating that, although it is not explicitly stated in the Bible, this belief is not contradicted by it and is, in fact, fits in well with the testimony of the Scriptures. It is also supported by the writings of the early Christians.

Why is virginity important?It is sometimes hard to see why the issue of whether Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is important. It does not seem to have any bearing on our salvation so why worry about it?There are several reasons why this doctrine is important. The most important involves the use of biological virginity as a type of spiritual virginity.

In 2 Cor 11 Paul writes: I wish you would put up with a little foolishness from me – not that you don’t do this already. The jealousy that I feel for you is, you see, God’s own jealousy: I gave you all in marriage to a single husband, a virgin pure for presentation to Christ. (2 Cor 11:1-2, NJB)

Mary’s physical virginity is also important to us as a type of our (and her) spiritual virginity, our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Jesus told us that in Heaven we will all live as virgins (Matt 22:30). Here again, Mary is our example.

“The mystery of Mary can be understood only in the light of her perpetual virginity, a virginity enduring before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. It is this perpetual virginity that lends the figure of Mary the spiritual greatness which was seen, little by little, to set her apart. All this is to be gleaned from the Marian writings of Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin, Saint Irenaues, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Ephrem, Saint Epiphanius, and later on Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome in their respective refutations of Bonosius and Helvidius.” [Daniel-Rops, 1960:86-87]

St. Francis of Assisi had a particular appreciation for the perpetual virginity of Mary and the statement it makes concerning our own lives. He wrote two prayers to Mary which speak of her virginity: the Antiphon to the Virgin and the Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He uses Mary as a symbol of what the rest of us must someday be.

As important as our salvation is, the Christian life is more than just “getting to Heaven.” It is a matter of living in accord with God’s will for us. Some people believe that God has called them to live a celibate lifestyle while others believe that celibacy is contradictory to God’s command to multiply which was given to Adam and Eve (Gen 1:28). If Mary is an example of one who has lived celibately for the glory of God, then to walk in this path is a viable option for any of us.

Although the value of a celibate lifestyle and belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary are not unique to the Catholic Church, most people associate this doctrine with the Roman Catholic Church. However, even the Protestant reformers Martin Luther [11], John Calvin [12] and Huldreich Zwingli [13] held that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.

It is currently the practice of the Catholic Church that its clergy adopt this celibate lifestyle. However, the Catholic Church has not always required it. Although it was common all along, and was encouraged, it was not until the Second Lateran Council (1139) that it was made mandatory. (The rules of the non-priestly orders, including the nuns, were determined by the orders themselves.)

Celibacy, as a way of life, appears very early in the history of the Christian church. There is a strong biblical foundation for such a practice found in the following passages:

  • Matt 19:12  Jesus commends those who live celibately for the sake of God’s kingdom. It is unlikely that He is referring to those who have made themselves eunuchs in a literal, physical sense. [3]
  • Acts 21:9   Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses implying that they were old enough to have been married.
  • 1 Cor 7:1-7 Paul says that it is better not to marry unless this lifestyle would provide too great a temptation to illicite sexuality.
  • Rev 14:4    The 144,000 chosen by Jesus will be virgins.

Some non-Catholics would like to be able to undermine the Catholic practice of celibacy for priests and nuns. If they can prove that Mary did not remain a virgin, the basis for this practice will be shown to be false or even contrary to the gospel, it would strengthen their argument. Some also feel that to prove that Mary was not a virgin would lessen her worthiness for special devotion in the eyes of Catholics. [14]

There is one more very important reason for this doctrine. In our day, virginity and chastity are being beseiged on every front. Even some churches deny that we are expected to flee fornication (1 Cor 6:18). The Church presents Mary as a model for us thereby presenting virginity and chastity as a positive value. Mary shows us that it is possible to resist sexual temptation, even though, as St. Joseph’s wife, she had every right to do so. [2]


What do you think?

Written by Gary J Sibio


    • I don’t avoid discussing religion but it depends with who. I have friends who can discuss without it turning into a bloodbath and some who can’t. I limit myself to those who can.