Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The virgin birth of Christ - What the Church really teaches

Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” (Lumen Gentium [Vatican II], 57)
The Church teaches de fide that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ our Savior. She conceived as a virgin, she gave birth as a virgin, and she remains a virgin forever. Yet, we ask, What does the Church mean when saying that Mary was a virgin “during birth”? What is the mystery we contemplate in the third joyful mystery of the Rosary? Why do the Popes and Church Fathers (together with the Doctors) insist that Christ’s birth was “miraculous”?
While we will briefly consider a few points from Scripture, our primary goal in this little article will be to describe just what exactly it is that the Church means when she professes that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.

What does the Church mean by “virginity”?
In modern speech, we use the term “virginity” and “virgin” to refer to refraining from sexual intercourse. “Virginity” is considered entirely in moral terms, and is not related so much to a physical description of the womb of a woman. This is often called, “sex-act” virginity – a “virgin” is one (male or female) who has never had sexual relations.
The Church, however, does not use the word “virgin” in this sense, when speaking of our Lady. Certainly, we mean all that the modern usage means – our Blessed Mother never engaged in sexual relations – but we mean even more still. When the Church says that Mary is a “virgin”, we mean that Mary’s womb has never been opened.
Mary is a “virgin” because, speaking in very plain terms, the closure of her virginity (i.e. her hymen) has never been ruptured [I know it is a bit difficult to speak of such things in regard to our Mother, but we must be clear and there is no other way around using the biological terms]. The womb of Mary is a sealed fountain, an enclosed garden, a cloister.
We may be a bit surprised to hear this – that “virginity”, in Mary’s case, means more than simple moral “virginity” but includes also this sense of physical integrity. Let us consider what this teaching would mean and why we must hold it.
Virgin “during birth”
The Church teaches that Mary was a virgin “in birth” (the Latin phrase is virginitas in partu). Consider the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.” (CCC 499) This paragraph of the Vatican II Catechism sites seven magisterial sources, from the Quamvis Patrum of Pope Zosimus (418) to the Cum quorumdam hominum of Pope Paul IV (1555).
Most notably, the Catechism continues with a citation of a dogmatic constitution from Vatican II: “In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’” (CCC 499, Lumen Gentium 57) Further, the post-Vatican II reformed Liturgy of the Hours explicitly professes that Mary remained a virgin in giving birth to her Son when, in the Advent antiphon for the mid-afternoon prayer time of “none” we read that the “closure of [Mary’s] virginity” will not be violated by the birth of the Savior [this is utterly lost in the English translation … yet another reason why priest should be praying the breviary in Latin].
This is the meaning of in partu virginity – Mary was a virgin even during the act of giving birth to her Son. This is the faith of the Church, we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But what can this mean: Mary was a virgin in giving birth? Can this possibly refer to “moral, sex-act virginity”? Would it be anything at all to claim that our Blessed Mother did not engage in sexual relations during the act of giving birth to her divine Son? Why such is utter nonsense and blasphemy!
Rather, it is clear that, when the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin in giving birth, we mean to say that our Lady retained her physical integrity – the womb of the Blessed Virgin was not opened even in the act of giving birth to her Son. There was no rupture to the virginal cloister of Mary’s womb, when Christ our God came forth.
How Christ was born
The Savior, rather, passed through the womb of the virgin Mary without causing any damage whatsoever. Indeed, as he passed through the closed walls of the room after his Resurrection (without breaking the walls themselves), so too did he pass through the closed wall of our Lady’s virginity (without causing any rupture or break).
This is the constant teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of the Popes and Councils. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Apostles’ Creed specifically names the virginity of Mary in relation to the birth of our Savior: “Born of the Virgin Mary”.
By his power as God, the Savior passed through the closed womb of the Virgin Mary as light passing through glass, as thought proceeding from intellect. He did no harm to the physical integrity of our Lady’s virginal cloister, but rather consecrated it!
It is this reality, that Jesus came forth from the womb of Mary without rupturing her virginity, which is the miracle of the birth of Christ. Pope Pius XII (in 1943) refers to this miracle in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, paragraph 110.
If Jesus was born according to the ordinary mode, then we may wonder what exactly is the “mystery” of the third joyful mystery?! But Jesus was not born in the ordinary way, rather he was born in a marvelous and miraculous manner – for he passed through the walled enclosure of his Mother’s virginity causing neither rupture nor pain unto the Virgin.
For more on how this could happen, please consider our article on how Christ came forth from the tomb at his Resurrection (by walking through the walls) – [read it here].
Some biblical evidence, and an objection
The principal proof from the New Testament is that our Lady, immediately after giving birth, rises and wraps the Child in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. Now, of course, such activity would generally be far beyond the powers of any woman who had just given birth. Thus, from this, it is reasonable to conclude that the birth of our Savior was miraculous and (involving no pains for his Mother) Christ came forth from the womb without doing any harm to the physical integrity of our Lady.
Some, however, will object that Luke 2:23-24 seems to affirm that our Savior did indeed open the womb of our Lady. For, when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple according to the Law, St. Luke points out that this action fulfilled the Law, “Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pare of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Indeed, it is quite ironic that any would cite this passage as a proof that Jesus opened the womb – since, it is clear that he had no need of being redeemed (and certainly not by any precept of the Old Law!), so too it should be clear that in fulfilling the precepts of the Law he was not bound by them and thus he most certainly did not open the womb as did all others before and after him.
Beyond this, there are many prophecies in the Old Testament which we will not name here.
The greater mystery
And the miraculous birth teaches us that, just as Christ came forth from his Mother without causing any rupture or physical harm, so too does the Eternal Word proceed from the Father without any rupture or separation of the divine Nature. The birth of the Lord from the Virgin Mary is a sign of his eternal birth from the Father.


Jeff said...

The magisterium has not specifically defined the virgin birth of Jesus in the way that you have defined it. Certainly, Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after birth. But the magisterium has not taught that His birth was the same as any other birth, except for the physical sign of virginity, nor has the magisterium taught that His birth is comparable to passing through a wall. It is an open question as to exactly how the birth occurred.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Where in the article do I say that "His birth was the same as any other, except for the physical sign of virginity"?
Most certainly, I would hold (and have held in other posts on this blog) that there were many aspects of Jesus birth which were quite unique!

As to the image of "passing through a wall" ... this is an image used constantly by the Fathers of the Church ... I have not said that it was taught by an Ecumenical Council.

Yes, it is an open question ... so long as we maintain that her womb was not opened and that the physical closure of her virginity was maintained during the very act of giving birth.

Peace to you. +

El Eremita said...

Dear Father,

Are you 100% sure that we must believe as a de fide dogma that Jesus "passed through the womb of the virgin Mary" as He walked through the walls after His resurrection?

I'm afraid that I don't have any sources in English, but in at least two manuals of dogmatic theology (those of Ludwig Ott and mons. Gerhard Müller) there are different opinions.

A rough translation of my Spanish version of Ott's book reads: to specify the meaning of the virginal integrity "in partu" in its physiological aspect does not belong to the Faith of the Church. (orig: "puntualizar en qué consiste la integridad virginal en el parto en el aspecto fisiológico, no corresponde a la Fe de la Iglesia", this is a translation of the German edition of 1965). It continues:

"The theological explanation relates the corporal integrity "in partu" with the exemption of disordered concupiscence. This exemption has as consequence the absolute control of the spiritual forces over the organs and physiological processes. From these it resulted that Mary had a completely active role in the birth of Jesus, as the scripture insinuates (Lc 2, 7). In this way the absence of physical pains and sexual affections (whatever that may mean) can be explained. The corporal integrity is the material element of "virginitas in partu", while the absence of sexual affections is the formal element."

(orig.: "La explicación teológica relaciona la intergridad corporal en el parto con la exención de desordenada concupiscencia. Esta exención tiene como consecuencia el absoluto dominio de las fuerzas espirituales sobre los órganos corporales y procesos fisiológicos. De ellos resulta que María tuvo en el nacimiento de Jesús un papel completamente activo, como también lo insinúa la Sagrada Escritura (Lc 2, 7). De este modo se puede explicar la falta de dolores fisicos y sobre todo la falta de afectos sexuales. La integridad corporal es el elemento material de la virginidad en el parto, mientras que la falta de afectos sexuales es el elemento formal")

The manual gives this reference: J.B. Alfaro "Adnotationes in tractatum de Beata Virgine Maria, Roma, Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1958, 53ss."

Mons. Müller goes even further. He states:

"Beyond and above the erroneous 'gnostic dualist' interpretation of the virginitas in partu, understood as a negation of the reality of the humanity of Jesus, this doctrine must be understood in the sense of the reality of the incarnation. It is not about the physiological singularities of the birth (for example, that the birth canal was not opened, or that the hymen was not broken, or that the typical pains of those in labor were not produced), but the saving and redeeming influence of the grace of the Redeemer over human nature, which had been damaged by the original sin.

(orig.: Más allá y por encima de la errónea interpretación del dualismo gnóstico de la virginitas in partu entendida como negación de la realidad de la humanidad de Jesús esta doctrina eclesial debe ser entendida en el sentido de la realidad de la encarnación. No se trata, pues, de singularidades fisiológicas del alumbramiento (por ejemplo, que no se abriera el canal del parto, o que no se rompiera el himen ni se produjeran los dolores propios de las parturientas), sino de la influencia salvadora y redentora de la gracia del Redentor sobre la naturaleza humana, que había sido “vulnerada” por el pecado original.)

For this quotation I don't have a 100% reliable source; it appeared in several spanish blogs which theoretically quote the spanish translation of Muller's book "Katholische Dogmatik".

So, I am very confused... if I understand these quotes correctly and if you are right in that we must believe that Jesus passed through the womb of Mary, this would mean that the bishop of Regensburg is an heretic and that Ott's manual contains heresies.

So father Ryan, any help would be appreciated.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

El Eremita,
My edition of Ott (in English) states -- "Mary bore her Son without any violation of her virginal integrity. (De fide on the ground of the general promulgation of the doctrine)" -- though Ott seems to question the teaching somewhat, he does affirm it is de fide.

Even in what you quoted we read "the corporal integrity is the material element of 'virginitas in partu'" -- so it seems that physical enclosure is affirmed.

Muller does not deny the physical integrity, but only says that there is much more than just that which is affirmed ... indeed, I agree -- that Church, in affirming this dogma, affirms the divinity of our Savior!

What I am certain is the teaching of the Church is that Mary was a virgin "during birth", that she had no pains, and that the closure of her virginity was not diminished but sanctified.
However we explain that is fine, so long as we maintain these essential points.

-- so, no, I do not think that Ott or Muller or Alfaro are heretics, not by any means! :-) --

Peace to you! +

El Eremita said...

Thanks a lot father.

Deo volente said...


I love this blog and the detailed theological information you provide. Thanks for this post just before the Nativity. It will have even more special meaning for me this year. I understood this intuitively, but you have provided a great and detailed explanation!

In Christ Jesus+

Brian said...

I am in RCIA and have never heard of this before. Mind-stretching, and difficult. What do you make of Revelation 12:1-2 "And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, ***she cried travailing in birth: and was in pain to be delivered.***"?

Howard said...

The principal proof from the New Testament is that our Lady, immediately after giving birth, rises and wraps the Child in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. Now, of course, such activity would generally be far beyond the powers of any woman who had just given birth.

Two very minor points. (1) I don't think a general tendency ("generally far beyond...") can be called a "proof". (2) The difficulty of birth varies greatly, as evidenced by the shocking case of Melissa Drexler, who gave birth during her prom, murdered her child, and then returned to the dance floor.

The birth of Jesus is meant to be a mystery. Remember the story of the midwife who was struck blind for her curiosity, as is still displayed on icons of the Nativity.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This question has actually been on my mind all this week and I was going to ask my pastor about it this evening. Genesis tells us that part of Eve's punishment for her sin would be the pain of childbirth and as the Blessed Mother was born without sin, I could not figure out how Mary could give birth in the same manner as all women. This is still a mystery, but as will all the mysteries of our faith, it is a beautiful thing to ponder.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for bringing up that verse! I had wanted to discuss it in the article, but didn't want to make the post too long.

Short answer: The book of Revelation is highly symbolic and we must be very careful about trying to apply the strict literal sense of the words to any particular historical event.

Indeed, I always found it odd that Protestants would site this passage about the Woman in pain as proof that Mary had pain, but do not at the same time insist that there was a dragon in the stable at Bethlehem ... if one line is to be strictly literal, why not the next?

Well, the pains in birth refer to the persecutions which the Church undergoes through the ages ... and also to the sorrows of the Heart of Mary as she sees her children fall away ... this is also quite clearly the intention of John in writing these words, since the Woman is meant as a symbol for the Church who is in the "desert" until the final coming of her Messiah.

Peace and blessings ... especially as you go through the RCIA process. Pray always that your heart may be open, and remember that (even if we do not understand) the gift of Faith will help us to hold fast to all the God has revealed.
May the Christ Child reign in your heart! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you are right ... it is a bit much for me to have called this verse a "proof" ... rather, it is an indication.

Regarding the midwife ... she was blinded precisely because she did not believe that the physical integrity of Mary's womb had been maintained. What a good example to us of how important this dogma really is! +

sedemsapientiam said...

Thank you for this, Father. I found this from St. Augustine: "That same power [of God] brought forth the body of the infant [Jesus] from the inviolate virginal womb of the mother, as afterward the Body of the Man penetrated closed doors." (from his letters - quoted from Fr. John Willis's The Teachings of the Church Fathers)

Also from St. Peter Chrysologus's Sermons (quoted from the same work), "Where are they who think that the Virgin's conception and giving birth to her child are to be likened to other women? For, this latter case is one of the earth, and the Virgin's is one from heaven. The one is a case of divine power; the other of human weakness. The one case occurs in a body subject to passion; the other in the tranquility of the divine Spirit and peace of the human body. The blood was still, and the flesh astonished; her members were put at rest, and her entire womb was quiescent during the visit of the Heavenly One, until the Author of flesh could take on His garment of flesh, and until He, who was not merely to restore the earth to man but also to give him heaven, could become a heavenly man. The Virgin conceives, the Virgin brings forth her child, and she remains a virgin."

And finally from St. John Damascene's De Fide Orthodoxa: "But just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still a virgin, in like manner also, He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed ... For it was not impossible for Him to have come by this gate, without injuring her seal in any way."

(sorry for the length)


Tom said...

Fr. Ryan,

I'm not sure the analogy with the upper room works. Christ passes through the walls in that instance by virtue of his resurrected body, which is no longer limited in the same way as before by time and space. But the infant Jesus' body is not resurrected.

Harry said...

It's good to see a quote from Vatican II being used- Hermeneutic of Continuity indeed!
On a sort of related subject, how would you respond to those who accuse the Church of having a phobia about sex (particularly in the writings of St Augustine), hence the focus on virginity?
(I don't actually believe that, I'm just curious how you would respond to the charge.)

Dan said...

While theologically beautiful, I still wonder if the "intact hymen" concern isn't more of a reflection of a culture.

One could posit a link between a ruptured hymen during a normal birth, and the stone being rolled away from the opening of the tomb at the resurrection, while still maintaining a virginal conception.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In fact, the consensus among theologians is that Jesus walked through the walls not by virtue of the powers of his glorified body, but by a miraculous work of his divinity ... see St. Thomas on this point (look at the citations in my article on how Christ came from the tomb, which is linked above).

In any case, I would suppose that Jesus allowed for something of a momentary glorification of his body when he was born ... perhaps analogous to what happened at the transfiguration.
Still, you are correct in pointing out that his body is not yet glorified until after the Resurrection ... but that didn't stop him from shining on the mountain, or from walking on water.

The analogy to the walls of the room is not mine, but is from the Fathers of the Church.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Joe (sedemsapientiam),
Thank you for those beautiful quotations!

Yes, I know that many accuse the Church of having something against sex ... I suppose that certain elements in the Eastern Fathers (especially Gregory of Nyssa) do tend in this direction.
St. Augustine has some difficulties as well ... but nothing at all as bad as what was common in the East. (hence, it is a farce that most blame St. Augustine for this)

Personally, I find that St. Thomas sheds much light on the subject -- interpreting the Fathers in the most charitable way possible and showing the truth of the matter.

In any case, we really must affirm that there will be no sexual relations in heaven ... and hence there is something passing and worldly here. Good, but passing away ... not the best, but still good.

Thus, I suppose we can admit something of the accusation ... while still insisting that the Church has long been the defender of the dignity of marriage and the family! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You illustrate my point better than you realize!

The stone WAS NOT rolled away at the time of the Resurrection. From the Scriptures themselves (especially Matthew' Gospel), it is very clear that Jesus exited the tomb without rolling back the stone but simply walking through the wall. This was the proof both of his Resurrection and of his diviinity.

The women saw the stone rolled back by the angel and BEHOLD the body was no longer there!

Likewise, we must maintain that Mary's womb remained closed when Christ came forth.

[for more on the stone, please do see my earlier article which is linked above]

Finally, you seem to have forgotten that the Church does not teach merely that it was a "virginal conception" but also that it was a "virginal birth" ... this is why what you have said would not be enough (you yourself admit this, since you only maintain that it was a virginal conception) ... the Church proclaims that the birth was not "a normal birth", but was miraculous. This is our Faith.

Peace. +

Steve Ray said...

I would suggest that not all have agreed with this position. Doctor of the Church St. Ambrose (teacher of St. Augustine) wrote, "For no union with man disclosed the secrets of the virgin’s womb, but the Holy Spirit infused the immaculate seed into an inviolate womb. He then who sanctified another womb in order that a prophet should be born, He it is who has opened the womb of His own mother, that the Immaculate should come forth. By the words opening the womb, he speaks of birth after the usual manner, not that the sacred abode of the virgin’s womb, which our Lord in entering sanctified, should now be thought by His proceeding forth from it to be deprived of its virginity." (Quoted in Aquinas's Catena Aurea, vol, 3, St. Luke 81.) Steve Ray,

Steve Ray said...

Might I also share the words of ST. Gregory of Nyssa, the great theologian and brother of St. Basil: "Gregory of Nyssa. (in Hom. de occursu Domini.) Now this commandment of the law seems to have had its fulfilment in the incarnate God, in a very remarkable and peculiar manner. For He alone, ineffably conceived and incomprehensibly brought forth, opened the virgin’s womb, till then unopened by marriage, and after this birth miraculously retaining the seal of chastity."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Steve Ray,
We must not think that St. Gregory of Nyssa denied the virgin birth (i.e. the virginal integrity during the very act of giving birth) ... he says (as quoted in the Catena Aurea on Luke 1) --
"GREG. NYSS. 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. But through a virgin's purity He makes His passage into mortal life at a time in which the darkness was beginning to fail, and the vast expanse of night to fade away before the exceeding brightness of the light. For the death of sin had brought an end of wickedness which from henceforth tends to nothing by reason of the presence of the true light which has illuminated the whole world with the rays of the Gospel."
Note: "without pain", "without defilement", it is clear that he sees the birth as miraculous -- this is why (even in your quote) he says that the womb retained its seal of chastity (this refers directly to the physical integrity and closure of virginity).

Regarding the quote from Ambrose ... it is funny you mention him, since he is perhaps the strongest defender of the virgin birth as being miraculous and entirely outside of the ordinary, maintaining the physical integrity of the Mother of God.
Indeed, in your very quote, St. Ambrose insists that the words "opening the womb" refer to the natural order and that these words cannot be applied directly to the birth of Christ since he did not deprive the Virgin's womb of its virginity.

If we read the words of the Fathers carefully and in context, we will see that they all maintain the virgin birth of our Savior -- that he did no harm to the physical integrity of her virginal wall. +

Mrs. M said...

So, you are saying that there was no afterbirth which must pass through the womb , no umbilical cord tying mother to child which normally, as you know, supplies the nutrients to baby and which must be cut , no human elements of the birth process? Either you are saying that the miracle was that these things just disappeared within her womb or Jesus had a growth process in the womb that did not need them?
And why is this type of birth so important? I thought the main point was to prove that Jesus had no human father and that Mary was truly a virgin at his conception.
And if she experienced no pain at childbirth due to her lack of sin, she would not experience pain at other times, in the same way Eve did not before the fall?

Mrs. M

A Sinner said...

[All this also brings up the question, as an aside, of just what constitutes even "moral virginity." The Catholic Encyclopedia, following Aquinas in the Summa, defines it as, "the absence, in the past and in the present, of all complete and voluntary delectation, whether from lust or from the lawful use of marriage; and the formal element, that is the firm resolution to abstain forever from sexual pleasure." It should be noted that, strictly speaking, under such a definition any willful sexual pleasure, not merely intercourse but even solo masturbation, would forfeit the aureole; as Aquinas says, "whether copulation takes place or not." This may disturb some of us used to the "pop cultural" definitions of virginity which (at their most "technical") refer only to penetration or (at their broadest) only to genital interaction with another person. Then again, this "theological" definition also thankfully sees women who are raped as still potential moral virgins and it is, of course, only a total lack of any willful venereal pleasure which makes sense as an internally consistent moral category.]

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mrs M,
Regarding the "afterbirth" ... I am content here to allow any explanation ... so long as we maintain that there was no rupture to the virginal cloister of our Lady's womb.

Personally, I think we should hold that Jesus was fed by Mary's body during the pregnancy ... thus, I would lean toward saying that there was n umbilical cord ... and that this cord may well have been re-absorbed into the body of our Lady.
Certainly, umbilical cords are not a modern discovery! It is not as though the Church Fathers were unaware of their existence! :-)

Finally, I think your own words prove the point of my article ... if Mary had a natural birth, then she would only be "a virgin at his conception" and not also during his birth (as you say) ... but the Church teaches that she is a virgin during the birth itself.
Thus, it is clear that this miraculous birth is very important ... it is a dogma of our Faith!

[see again the last paragraph of the article for a consideration of the connection between the birth from Mary and the eternal generation of the Son from the Father]

Julia said...

It is apparent that you did not like or believe my comment. Please check out what I said with a gynecologist or obstetrician.

It is time for this obsession with physical "intactness" to be over - except as ancient symbolism.

I am a believing Catholic and not just giving you a hard time. I am also not in favor of women as priests - so I have no hidden agenda.

larryb said...

Apparently the church teaches that the christ was born like "light passing through glass, as thought proceeding from intellect. He did no harm to the physical integrity of our Lady’s virginal cloister, but rather consecrated it!" To me then it simply was not birth. 6-7 pounds of light, I do not believe it. Would christ miraclous healing powers keep her from pain, restore her virginity and heal her on his way out absolutely. Just like all the others he healed and restored to their natural self.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I have no idea what comment you are referring to ... please explain.

If you want to set aside the idea of "intactness", then you are wanting to set aside the teaching of Vatican II ... this is no mere "ancient symbolism", it is taught in the most recent Ecumenical Council.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Perhaps you do not understand the rhetorical tool called "simile" ... let me explain.

When I say that Christ passed through "like light passing through glass" ... I do not say that he literally "is" light ... but that there is something similar between the manner in which light passes through glass and the manner in which he passed through the wall of Mary's virginal cloister.

Must as when we say that a man has a memory "like an elephant", we do not mean that the man is literally an elephant.

Hence, your claim that Christ would then be "6-7 pounds of light" is either an example of your ignorance (and indeed foolishness) or is simply a statement made out of malice.
The Church, obviously, does not say that Christ's body was literally "light", any more than she says it was literally "thought" [though it came forth from Mary like thought from the intellect].

In any case, the Church does not teach that Mary was simply a virgin in the first moment after birth (as though Christ healed her immediately after he ruptured her virginity), but that she was a virgin during birth ... hence you explanation is not the faith of the Church.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

There was a comment from someone with the pseudonym "A Sinner" which was far too long to post ... please remember that this is a "comment" box, not a place to post an article.

The basic point was to say that, biologically, the hymen and the cervix are two different things.
Fine and good ... the Church teaches that the closure of Mary's virginity was not ruptured or damaged or broken during the act of giving birth (nor before or after) ... so long as we maintain this, and that Mary gave birth without any birthing-pains, I am content for now.

However, I would ask that we all remember to write of this matter with great tenderness and caution ... I will not post any comment which is overly explicit regarding the body of our Lady.

Here is a quote from Joseph Ratzinger, provided by "A Sinner" -- "The cavalier divorce of 'biology' and theology omits precisely man from consideration; it becomes a self-contradiction insofar as the initial, essential point of the whole matter lies precisely in the affirmation that in all that concerns man the biological is also human and especially in what concerns the divinely-human nothing is 'merely biological.' Banishment of the corporeal, or sexual, into pure biology, all the talk about the 'merely biological,' is consequently the exact opposite of what faith intends. For faith tells us of the spirituality of the biological as well as the corporeality of the spiritual and divine. On this point the choice is between all or nothing. The attempt to preserve a spiritual, distilled remainder after the biological element has been eliminated denies the very spiritual reality which is the principal concern of the faith in the God become flesh."

The main point is that we cannot have just the "spiritual" side of Mary's virginity ... we must maintain also the physical, corporal and biological side as well. It was a real event in human history, not a mere sentiment or abstraction.

mps said...

I have come to think that the meaning of the passage in the Book of Revelation, 12:1-2, in so much as it might refer to Mary, primarily refers to her role in giving Christ up for Crucifixion, wherein she certainly did suffer. The Crucifixion was the 'birth' of Redemption and Grace. So the symbols works many ways for me.
Additionally, mystically, the passage might mean that Mary joins her sufferings at that time with those of the Church which persist until the final Coming of Christ. On another level, immediately after the Birth of Christ, Mary began suffering her seven Sorrows, so the passage could apply there too. (For me all of St. John's writings work on many levels.)

These are just my own opinions. It's the only way I can reconcile the passage with the Virgin Birth.


larryb said...

@Fr Ryan; I made no such claim of 6 to 7 pounds of light, and you know it. I know the church does not claim that Christ's body was literally light, your the one giving the comparison here. I think this kind of "simile" in matters such as these gives the catholic religion a bad name. These are matters of faith and tradition not "beam me up Scotty"

Matt said...

Dear Fr. Ryan:

I assent to the belief that Mary's physical virginity was never harmed. However, I've always wondered if Mary could have chosen to feel the pains of birth, even though she was not subject to the consequences of original sin. Mary suffered greatly in her life with Christ, which is why we call her the "Mother of Sorrows." All of this suffering was part of her great "yes" to God. So I think it's not outside the realm of possibility that she felt the pains of birth, too, not because she had to, but because she chose to. Any thoughts?

lisag said...

Thanks Father for your explanation. I had heard of this idea on Catholic radio before and read about the concept of Mary as the new wine cask set aside for God's plans. Pain in childbirth was give to women by God after the fall in Eden. Mary who was born without the original sin would not have to have this penance. Why is it so hard for people to believe in the intact virginity of Our Blessed Mother when God made us from dust. As Catholics we have the brilliant faithful minds of 2 thousand years to rely on.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You said, "6-7 pounds of light, I do not believe it."
Don't play these games with me ... you said what you said.
And it came either from ignorance of grammar (namely, of similes) or from malice.

And, no, I'm not the one "giving the comparison here" ... that is the image used by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church ... the image has even been used in the Church's liturgy.

In any case, you still have failed to answer my response (in my comment of 9pm Dec 21) ... which is that it cannot simply be that Jesus harmed then healed Mary's virginity ... then she would be a virgin in the first instant after birth, but not during the moment birth itself.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mary's yes to suffering came when she suffered the loss of her own Son upon the Cross.

While it would not be totally outside the realm of possibility for her to suffer when giving birth ... IN FACT this did not happen, as we know from the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers.

I hope that makes sense! Have a blessed Christmas! +

Julia said...


My original comment must have disappeared into the ether.

I said that this kind of discussion every Christmas on Catholic blogs is exceedingly distressing to the many innocent Catholic women who lost their "intactness" due to events that were not sexual. Example: my medical examination at age 14 necessitated by health problems; my sister's bicycle mishap at the age of 8. And the results of young women using a very common feminine hygiene product.

This obsession with the hymen comes from the olden days when mothers-in-law hung out bloody sheets the day after weddings to show the neighbors that the bride had been "intact" and therefore a good girl.
Even today in rural India and other backward parts of the world, if a bride does not bleed on her wedding night she may be killed or sent back in shame to her parental home where they might not take her back.

Isn't it time for male Catholic theologians to quit focussing on what is now considered misleading and insulting to many women readers? We know so much more about female physiology than the Early Fathers who were celibate and to whom female anatomy, physiology and reproduction were truly mysterious.

I agree with an earlier female commenter - isn't it enough that Mary never had sex and God is the true Father? All this business about the "seal of chastity" and writing about the normal birth process as if it is defilement is insulting to many good Catholic women.

laete humilis said...

Dear Father Erlenbush,

Blessings to you and peace. You often make statements appealing to the consensus of Fathers of the Church. Might I suggest that it would be very helpful for your readers if you would, now and again, cite specific Fathers and the works, wherein your arguments are supported, in order to give a more accurate sense of the teachings of the Fathers. When reading your articles I often wish you had made actual citations (including Latin and/or Greek text of the quotes, not merely translation!) instead of statements like "this is a common image in the Fathers" and "the Fathers all agree". Show us who and where! And give us the citations! It would be a great education to the people, and it would give your arguments a further degree of credibility.

pax tecum

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, I have no idea what happened to your first comment ... must have been a complication in blogger, or something.

Well, you are correct that there has been much abuse and harm caused by an over-emphasis on physical intactness when it comes to women in general. Certainly, as you say, there are many ways in which virginal integrity can be lost without a willful act on the part of the woman -- and it is very sad that some societies reject woman for no fault of their own (and also refuse to forgive women who have made mistakes).

However, all that being said, the teaching of the Church is what it is ... and the Church has told us that it isn't enough to just say Mary conceived as a virgin ... but we must further say that she gave birth as a virgin and without pain.
Vatican II taught (more explicitly, perhaps, than any other Ecumenical Council) that Mary's virginal integrity was not harmed during the act of giving birth ... so, you can see, this isn't just an "ancient" idea -- if you want to be a "Vatican II Catholic" then you must accept this teaching! :-)

Remember, Mary's physical virginity is a sign of the relation between the Son and the Father -- this is how the Church has always understood it. Her virginity is not meant to be used as a way of "keeping women in their place" or anything like that -- it is a "theo"logical point, not an "anthropo"logical one.

In any case, we simply must get beyond ourselves ... if we start to reject Church dogma because we feel "insulted" by it, then we are gonna end up in a very bad place.
Rather, ask: "Is it true? Is this the faith of the Church?"

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

laete humilis,
Yes, it would be very helpful indeed if I gave the Latin/Greek original together with a translation ... but I simply do not have time for such.
I am a parish priest and have many pastoral duties ... so people will just have to be satisfied with what they get.

In any case, I doubt that most would take the time to actually go and look up the citations anyways (especially since most of the works of the Fathers are still not available in English).
Rather, I am satisfied with simply saying things like: "Ambrose says" or "This is the thought of Augustine" or "All the Fathers" ... it will have to suffice!

In any case, I suspect that the texts of Vatican II, Papal Documents, and the Catechism are far more accessible to most readers (also, I think most people put far more weight in the Catechism than in St. Augustine). I always give these citations.

Peace to you. +

A Sinner said...

I'm not going to say she suffered birth pains. But I don't think they are NECESSARILY excluded by the dogma of the in partu virginity strictly speaking, even if there is a long tradition.

It seems to me like the No Labor Pains argument generally comes from misunderstanding the implications of two dogmas; either the in partu virginity, or the Immaculate Conception.

But neither of those dogmas, in themselves, actually implies No Birthing Pains of necessity. If there were no birthing pains, that would have to be a separate or additional teaching, independent of the other two.

Sometimes it seems like the Fathers and Doctors didn't entirely understand the female anatomy.

As you summarized me saying, the cervix and hymen are two different things, and the "opening" or stretching of the former (ie, of the passage in and out of the uterus itself) has no immediate association with virginity under any definition. Even merely physiological virginity has only ever been associated with the rupturing of the hymen, not with the dilation of the cervix (which has nothing to do with sex).

Sometimes when you read the arguments for no labor pains, they seem to imply that only painless methods of birth could have preserved Mary's virginal seal intact. However, this seems to assume that the dilation of the cervix or stretching of the birth canal have anything to do with physiological virginity. They don't. It would be possible to maintain that Christ miraculously passed through (or stretched; the hymen itself has an opening for menses, even it is not a total closure) the "cloister wall" of the hymen while everything "behind" it could have still happened naturally.

The other argument seems to imply that since Mary was conceived without original sin (ie, already in original justice or a state of sanctifying grace)...that she couldn't feel labor pains since they were a punishment for original sin. But that doesn't follow either; so was death, and Mary died as you point out. The Immaculate Conception doesn't mean that the Preternatural Gifts were restored, so why this one exemption would be made is on odd question. If Mary is the Type of the Church, and the Church cries out in labor pains...well, I dunno.

I'm not going to say the traditional interpretation is untrue. I have no idea really. But I think the bare-minimum of orthodoxy only requires one to believe that the hymen was not ruptured during the birth, not anything about the specific mechanics of HOW.

I think the question of what happened regarding the cervix and birth canal (and afterbirth), as well as the question of pain (though that has traditionally been excluded)...are not, in themselves, within the scope of the dogma of the in partu virginity. If there were no labor pains, that's a separate teaching, as in partu virginity could have been maintained WITH pain.

A Sinner said...

"(also, I think most people put far more weight in the Catechism than in St. Augustine)"

Which is, sort of, a terrible historical aberration, I'd think...

larryb said...

@Fr Ryan: I am not playing games. If you wish to twist this go ahead. I have not failed to answer your response, I said I do not believe it and also gave what I believe could have happened. It certainly doesn't mean that's what happened. If Christ was man, he was born of flesh, and all that goes along with it, not photons.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A Sinner,
I debated whether to post your comment of 9:01am ... I really think we ought not to speak so plainly of such sacred things ... some reserve is called for here.
Still, I think your comment is right on the border ... hence, I did decide to post it ... but I would ask that you not go any further into the details ... it just begins to verge upon "offensive to pious ears".

I will point out one very telling line of your comment: You state that there are ways of discussing the virginal cloister of Mary and what occurred during the birth of our Savior such that "it could have still happened naturally".
This is very telling indeed -- since the Church has specifically taught that the birth was not merely natural but was "miraculous". Hence, it should be clear - based on your own words - that there is something wrong with your hypothesis.

Regarding labor pains ... it is at least a teaching of the ordinary magisterium (which demands our assent) that Mary suffered no pains in giving birth ... this is attested by the Catechism of Trent: "To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. 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."

Further, beyond the magisterial teaching, it is a simple fact that the only people (throughout Church history) who have thought that Mary suffered pain in giving birth have been heretics. No orthodox theologian has ever asserted this ... and even in our own day, the post-Vatican II age, theologians test the waters but never outright deny the universal teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, and also of the Liturgy itself.

If the birth was miraculous (as it surely was) and if Christ came forth without any rupture or harm to Mary's virginity (as he surely did), then there is nothing in the Nativity which could have caused pain.

As the Father begot the Son from eternity without any personal loss or hardship, so too did our Lady give birth without pain or defilement.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are trying my patience.
Who ever said that Jesus was "photons" and not "flesh"? Are you really that ignorant?! Can you not understand that a simile is different from direct formal equivalence?!

When I say "like" or "as" it is different from saying "is" ... let me be clear -- I did not say "Jesus was light shining forth from Mary's womb" ... I said that he came forth from her in a manner analogous to the way that light shines through glass.

Further, your reference (in an earlier comment) to Star Trek is absurd! Do you really think that St. Augustine was thinking of "beam me up Scotty" when he said that Christ came forth from our Lady as thought proceeding from intellect, without any physical harm to her virginal cloister?!

Yes, Christ was flesh ... and this flesh passed through the walls of the upper room after his Resurrection ... and, by a miraculous birth (as the Church teaches) so too did this flesh come forth from Mary without any harm to her virginal integrity.

Its not that he hurt and then healed her (as you blasphemously claim) ... but he never diminished her integrity in the least!

Now, you either show where I or a Church Father or the Church herself has said that Christ is "7 pounds of light" and a "photon" rather than flesh (since this is the accusation you make), or apologize for wasting my time ... or you will never have another comment posted on this blog.

Good bye. +

larryb said...

@Fr Ryan: You have already lost your patience. Photons was with malice. ^-7 pounds of light was tongue and cheek for something I cannot believe. If the fathers are right In what they teach It will remain a mystery to me. I believe anything is possible with God. Good by, I will not bother you again.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In fact, I have not lost my patience ... I am only trying to right clearly and directly.

I am glad that we settled the whole issue of "photons" and "light" ... and that you, after all, do accept and believe the mystery as taught by the Church Fathers. Praise be to God for that! +

A Sinner said...

"if Christ came forth without any rupture or harm to Mary's virginity (as he surely did), then there is nothing in the Nativity which could have caused pain."

No, see, this is the syllogism that I demonstrated did not follow in my previous comment.

Affirming that Mary's physiological virginity was preserved even during the birth of Christ...requires only that we say that her hymen was miraculously unruptured.

However, for YOUR conclusion here to follow, we would have to assume that whatever manner in which that was (indeed, miraculously) preserved...also implied no pain in any other way, from any other causes.

But that doesn't follow. The integrity of the hymen itself could be preserved miraculously, in order to maintain Mary as a virginal sign even physically (the whole point of this teaching, it seems to me), but "further up the passage" things which might be painful could have happened (stretching, etc) ala a natural birth.

Saying this neither denies that the birth was miraculous, nor that her virginity was intact even physiologically. It seems, here, more a question of the extent and mechanics of that miracle.

As I said, I can accept a No Birth Pains teaching (and err on the side of it due to the strong tradition). But it is not implied by the teaching about the in partu virginity. If it is taught, it is taught as a separate and independent article of faith. As there are ways the virginal seal could have been miraculously preserved in the birth of Christ that would not have excluded pain for other reasons.

Veronica said...

Father, you sure do know how to open up a can of worms!

Our Lady was conceived without original sin; labor in childbirth is an effect of original sin. Our Lady would never have known the pain of childbirth.

Furthermore, I also believe that the birth of Our Lord was miraculous - perhaps Our Lady simply went to sleep and awoke with Our Lord in Her arms?

I have found that the more immoral our culture has become, the harder it is for people to accept comprehend some things. Why is it so hard for some Catholics to lift themselves up and out of the immoral gutter of today and enter the realm of the sublime and pure?

Julia said...

"Remember, Mary's physical virginity is a sign of the relation between the Son and the Father -- this is how the Church has always understood it. Her virginity is not meant to be used as a way of "keeping women in their place" or anything like that -- it is a "theo"logical point, not an "anthropo"logical one."

I'm not raising any issue of "keeping women in their place" - I'm 67 and very far from being a feminist; e.g. I'm not for women being priests. I am speaking about how distressing it is for a woman to keep reading about the extreme value placed on physical intactness = virginity, i.e. good girl, holiness, sacredness. What is the theological meaning about non-intactness? Is it the opposite of holy and sacred? Why?

Are we still to believe as true that the "sun stood still" as stated in the Old Testament when we now know that the Earth that moves, not the sun?

Are you men aware that a few of the folks reading this blog are women and are scratching their heads at the statements being made about women's anatomy? Is there any theological significance about differing male body parts?

Some things in Scripture have always been seen as metaphors. I think this subject is another one that should be re-examined considering the scientific knowledge of the time when Scripture was written.

But, for me, it's the language that is thrown around intimating that non-intact young girls are somehow polluted or deficient, regardless of their actually being virgins with their hymens physically broken by non-sexual events.

It is the failure to consistently distinguish between dubious physical "proof" of virginity and moral virginity that is distressing. Did you know there are women born without a hymen? Did you know the hymen is not a seal or wall - normally it has a small opening or there are big problems for the woman. That ruins the theological comparisons right there. To be useful theological concepts using biological "signs" should at least be cognizant of actual physical anatomy or physiology.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I do believe our Lady was awake when Christ was born ... I will post on that in the next couple of days ... I think she was in ecstatic prayer!

Thank you for your comment ... it gives me GREAT comfort.
We "theologians" are greatly encouraged when the faithful (I mean, those like you who have given your life over to the Lord through prayer and living your vocation in the world) assert the same conclusion from the "sense of the faith".
Thank you for your comment, and your witness!

Blessings to you in the final days of Advent as we prepare for the birth of our Savior! +

Anonymous said...

I see S Ray shows some Fathers hold that both virginity and being open by birth of the Lord are possible. Jesus was born. One possibility, since it was our Lord, being open did not create a change in her virginity.
Credo Chris

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I hope you do not mind if I say that I could not help but smile as I read your comment ... you are just so emphatic (both in this comment and in your previous one) that you are not a radical feminist! Please, do not worry, I put my pitch fork away a long time ago -- I am not planning on burning anyone at the stake any time soon! :-)

Indeed, I praise God that you seek to understand the Faith, AS A WOMAN ... and that you refuse to follow all the nonsense of the modern day, which ultimately degrades women.

Still, rest assured that I do understand at least the basics of female anatomy! I do have a college education ... and, beyond that, St. Albert is credited with the work "The Mysteries of Women" (which discusses issues relating to pregnancy).

On account of propriety (especially because I am a young priest) I do not feel comfortable going into all the biology here ... but, obviously, I do understand that the hymen is not strictly speaking an impenetrable wall or seal [and I apologize if my writing style seems to make it look as though the Church Fathers knew nothing of the female body ... of course they most certainly did].

Still, I'm sure you would admit that the "virginal wall" is such that a child cannot pass through (though, truly, there are some small openings) ... it is in this sense that Mary's womb was a "cloister".
Of course, even the monastic cloisters were not "air tight" after all! No one suffocated in the medieval convents! :-)

Well, I hope you can see that I mean this comment in good spirits ... truly, I have enjoyed this little back and forth ... especially, I praise God for your forthrightness and openness -- I have great respect for you as a woman and a believer ... and I cannot help but chuckle at the fact that you think I (and the Church) are so ignorant of female anatomy! Perhaps I blush too easily ... but there are some subjects I just don't like to write about! :-)

Well, please read the quote from "Daughter Zion" by Joseph Ratzinger ... which "A Sinner" gave and I posted in my comment of Dec 21, 9:08pm.
We simply cannot spiritualize the virgin birth of Christ ... it has an historical and biological/physical dimension ... if God has revealed that Mary was a virgin in the very act of giving birth (and he has, through his Church) then we simply must accept this -- further, the miraculous birth teaches us much about the Eternal Birth of the Son from the Father!

In any case, do you really think that God would allow Mary to lose her physical integrity through exercise or any of the other non-sexual events?! Of course not!

Well, though you may be a bit frustrated with me (and I don't blame you for that!), I am very delighted that you have entered into this discussion.
I don't think there is anything more to say on this topic (at least I have nothing more to say) ... but I do hope you will continue to comment on future posts.

In the next couple of days, I will post something from St. Bridget on the miraculous birth ... you should like it, she was a woman after all -- and, like you, she didn't believe in women priests! :-)

Blessings to you in Christ our Savior. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A Sinner,
The simple fact is that the Church, in her ordinary magisterium, as seen in the Catechism of Trent (and also in the teachings of the Church Fathers and also the Scholastic Doctors) connects the pain-free birth with the virginal birth ... the fact that Christ came forth without rupture to his Mother is given as proof of the fact that she experienced no pain [see the quote from the Roman Catechism in my comment of Dec 22, 12:08pm].

I noticed that in your last comment (1:34pm), you once gain compared the birth of Christ to a "natural birth" ... you have to stop doing that! The ordinary magisterium has declared that it was not an ordinary and natural birth -- you have failed in this point in every comment so far!

The birth was "miraculous" ... and any explanation of a "virgin birth" which tries to "naturalize" the event (i.e. to explain it according to ordinary, scientific, natural terms) is contrary to the teaching of the Church.
So, please, stop trying to explain the miracle away by referring to natural and ordinary processes! Stop trying to compare the birth of Christ to a "natural" or "ordinary" birth.

[sure, you give lip-service to the "miraculous birth", but at every turn you keep measuring the birth of our Savior against the natural processes of child bearing]

Well, in any case, the simple historical fact is that the "no birth pains" teaching is not given us as something separate from in partu virginity, but has been handed down from the Church Fathers as something connected with (if not necessarily implied by) the virgin birth of the Christ Child.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Credo Chris,
Steve Ray misrepresents the quote from St. Ambrose ... he specifically says that "opening of the womb" refers to the natural order of childbirth and that Christ was not born in this natural way, but in a miraculous way ... hence, it is clear that he does not hold that the Lord "opened the womb" in the way you are implying.

Regarding St. Gregory of Nyssa, see my earlier comment.

The only reason they use "opening of the womb" are because they are comment on the verse from Luke 2 ... these Fathers do not believe that Christ literally opened the womb of Mary after the ordinary sense of opening the womb. These Fathers continue to assert that her womb was sealed!

Its not enough to quote the Fathers out of context, Chris ... we have to be honest ... and those quotes don't say what you want them to say. +

Anonymous said...

I must admit an honest difficulty in coming to this understanding. I feel somehow separated from Christ if he didn't share in this portion of our birth/humanity. I'll have to work on that.
Not that it must, but how do you see this particular teaching of virgin during birth speaking to or informing us regarding our salvation?
Respectfully, Credo Chris

Matt said...

Thanks for your previous answer. In light of that, can you please explain Revelation 12:1? The verse clearly refers to "pangs of birth, "crying out," etc. I understand the Church interprets the woman in this passage to be Mary (with other secondary meanings such as Israel and the Church). Why would John, who was very close to Mary during her life, write this if it did not happen?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Credo Chris,
I applaud you for seeking to understand your faith. Indeed, it is a great mystery as to HOW this miraculous birth took place.

Jesus is, of course, still human -- why, remember that the first Adam, after all, wasn't born of a woman ... and Eve was created from Adam's rib ... and yet they are your first parents!

Are babies born by c-section any less human? Are babies conceived in test-tubes any less human?
Christ's birth was far more a true "birth" than these!

Christ's birth was a true birth, Mary was truly his Mother ... but all is wondrous.
I hope it makes a bit more sense now...

Blessings and peace to you, in Christ our Savior! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think I discussed Rev 12 in one of the earlier comments ... so, just briefly here ...

It is clear that John is writing down a vision which is highly symbolic -- hence, we should be very careful about trying to make one-to-one comparisons ... Revelations is not meant to be read as simple history, but is filled with apocalyptic metaphors (which tell us quite a lot about history and the last days).

Regarding the woman ... I would no more expect that Mary cried out in labor pains than I would expect there to have been a dragon in the stable roaring and casting down stars!
Why is it that people take the first verse literally (Rev 12:2) and then don't continue to read the next verse literally (Rev 12:3).
Further, do you think that Rev 12:1 proves that - while giving birth - Mary was literally "clothed with the sun" and crowned with 12 stars?

How can we take the middle verse (12:2) in a strictly literal sense and then just brush aside the verses before and after?
The protestants betray their ill-will when they quote this verse as "proof" that Mary suffered in giving birth.

Mary didn't suffer in Bethlehem, and the sun didn't clothe her, and a seven-headed (and ten horned) dragon's roar didn't wake up the whole town!

emma said...


Thank you for posting this commentary on the virginity of our Blessed Mother--what a great preparation for the Nativity!

Having given birth myself and knowing of the pains and process involved, I can understand the importance of not only a virgin conception, but a virgin birth. Not to speak too bluntly, but it is a messy process and I can not think of our Immaculate Mother going through the same event as the rest of us mothers. It lends to a better understanding of our Lord Jesus, too. We were born "dirty" with original sin from mothers who were also born with original sin. It makes sense that Jesus, being free of original sin, would necessarily require a "clean" and special birth--i.e., birth from a mother conceived without original sin and born in a different way than the rest of us.

I don't know if that makes sense, but it is my personal mental work-out used to grasp such a beautiful mystery. Either way, I believe all that the Church teaches, so if what I said is contrary to Church teaching, consider it revoked!

Have a blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!


A Sinner said...

"the fact that Christ came forth without rupture to his Mother is given as proof of the fact that she experienced no pain [see the quote from the Roman Catechism in my comment of Dec 22, 12:08pm]."

Yes, it is, and I'm just nevertheless isn't a "proof" anymore than the fact that Mary wrapped Him in swaddling clothes afterward is "proof" she suffered no pains.

Just because it is "given as a proof" doesn't mean it holds together logically AS a proof (depending on how you mean "proof"). The argument, in itself, is faulty because it includes some assumptions in its premises regarding the manner of the miracle which are not, in fact, necessarily to be taken as granted, as dogma.

A lack of birth pains (if there was such a lack) MAY have been connected to the manner of the virginity-preservation (if, indeed, it happened in the "beaming down" manner that was apparently often imagined).

But for this causal connection to work as an argument for no birth'd have to establish FIRST that this was, in fact, the manner in which the miracle occurred.

However, I think the specific mechanics of the miracle of preserving the virginity in partu are outside the scope of the dogma (ie, the dogma does not say, "Christ passed out like a subtle body" or "in a like manner to how He walked through walls," it merely says the virginal seal was preserved SOMEHOW.)

Therefore, jumping to a conclusion about no birth pains from an assumption about the mechanics of HOW the virginity was preserved (an assumption not actually contained in the dogmatic article itself, it would seem)...seems like a flawed leap.

We are required to accept the dogmas of the Faith. We are not required to accept specific arguments or proofs in their favor.

So what I say stands: if there were no birth pains (and I'll err on the side of believing it out of tradition), this is nevertheless, in itself, a teaching separate from both the in partu virginity and the immaculate conception, as neither implies it of necessity.

A Sinner said...

"I noticed that in your last comment (1:34pm), you once gain compared the birth of Christ to a "natural birth" ... you have to stop doing that! The ordinary magisterium has declared that it was not an ordinary and natural birth -- you have failed in this point in every comment so far!"

It was not ordinary and natural in SOME way, in at least ONE point (ie, in that the virginal seal was SOMEHOW preserved unruptured). But it may or may not have been like unto a regular birth in OTHER ways.

For it to have been a "birth" at all, the "same sort of event," it must be analogizable to natural births in SOME ways. The question is in what ways exactly; how much was it similar, how much was it miraculously different.

And, as far as I can tell, the only difference dogma REQUIRES us to affirm is that He SOMEHOW didn't rupture the hymen on the way out. Everything beyond that seems to be pious conjecture not necessarily implied by the dogma about the virginity itself.

The birth was virginal. That is the "essence" of its miraculous nature as defined by the dogma. What else may have happened as regards the cervix, the birth canal, the afterbirth, blood or other fluids, etc...simply seem to me to be beyond the scope of the dogma.

You might make a better argument against all that based on Ritual Purity. But, of course, as you point out regarding the fact that Christ wouldn't need to be "redeemed" under the Old Law...the birth of God Himself could assumably never be ritually impure (even if, say, it DID involve blood) anyway, so excluding these other things seems unnecessary when it comes to maintaining the idea of ritual purity.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A Sinner,
Of course the "no birth pains" teaching (and it is a teaching at least of the ordinary magisterium which demands our assent) is not necessarily demanded by the immaculate conception of Mary and virgin birth of Christ ... but they are most certainly all connected.

Much as the immaculate conception is not itself necessarily demanded by the divine Motherhood, but anyone can see that the two dogmas are connected ... it is the dogma that Mary is Mother of God which lead the Church to recognize that she is the Immaculate Conception.

Likewise, it is the dogma of the miraculous virgin birth, which led the Church to recognize (and teach) that Mary suffered no labor pains.
The two mysteries are connected ... and, though they are "distinct" teachings, they are not "separate" teachings.

Finally, don't say that the Fathers thought of Christ's birth as a "beaming down" ... it is disrespectful and untrue.
When they say he came forth as light through glass ... they do not literally mean that he was light. They also say he came forth as thought from intellect, and they don't literally mean that he was thought.
It's an analogy ... why can't people understand that a simile is not literal equivalence?!

Rob said...

"In any case, do you really think that God would allow Mary to lose her physical integrity through exercise or any of the other non-sexual events?! Of course not! "

I guess I'm with Julia here. Though I will assent to whatever the Church teaches, I confess it makes little sense to me. Perhaps that is because of the age in which I live, and having been unavoidably shaped by it. So much the better for having a Magisterium.

Nevertheless, the comment above is incomprehensible to me. Why "of course not". The integrity to me so besides the point. She was a virgin before, during and after. In the fullest sense. But the state, really?



Veronica said...

Father Ryan, thank you for your kind wishes. I want to take this opportunity to wish you a most blessed and Merry Christmas. Please know that I pray for you each day commending you to Our Lady's Immaculate Heart!


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Do you have the same negative reaction when you read in the Gospel of John that Jesus' bones were not broken?
Is it so silly and "incomprehensible"? After, what does it matter if the bones were broken? It's just a reference to a culturally pre-determined theme of an unblemished lamb?!

Further, you must think that St. John is quite over-the-top when he emphasizes that not only blood but also water flowed out from his pierced side!
What does God care about intact knee-caps and water mixed with blood?!

You see ... if you separate the physical reality from the spiritual, then you will quickly abandon the faith.
You will quickly end up in blasphemy ... what is needed here is reverence and humility.

Now, I've already said something of why it matters that Mary was a physical virgin ... it teaches us about the eternal relation between the Father and the Son ... pray with that and you will come to understand the Church Fathers. +

Alessandro said...

I'm with Father, this time, with no doubt whatsoever. And it is a matter of logic, nothing else.

The Catholic dogma says that Mary was virgin "before, during and after" Christ's birth. That leaves no room for a free interpretation.

Those who claim a spiritual meaning to virginity, can have a point in their favor when they deal with virginity before and after Christ's birth. But since you deny the physical reality of virginal birth, can anyone tell me how a virgin could be only spiritually virgin in partu? Since it is absurd to believe that a woman might have sex while giving birth to a child, a virgin who has conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit would naturally be spiritually virgin in any case. So what's the point in declaring virginity in partu, as the Church does, if it were not an exception? Why isn't the Church content with saying the Mother of God was "virgin before and after Christ's birth", in case the meaning were spiritual virginity, that is her will to avoid sexual intercourse? There is no reasonable explanation unless we admit the virginal birth as a physical miracle. God actually let Mary's womb and hymen keep intact, so that she truly could be virgin, there would otherwise be no miracle and no reason for a dogma.

Just a side note: how can we doubt the miracle of Mary's intact nature in partu, when the same God didn't burn the bush under Moses' eyes?

Rob said...

No, Father,
I don't find it silly and incomprehensible at all that St John emphasizes that none of his bones were broken. It makes perfect sense that this should be. Nor do I find over the top the emphasis on water flowing from his side.

I have absolutely no interest in separating the physical from the spiritual. Virginity is clearly a physical thing, the reality of which I have absolutely no interest in denying. That Mary's physical virginity is a sign of spiritual realities is neither something I have any interest in denying.

In fact, I have no desire to deny anything the Church teaches, which I made pretty clear in my last post.

What does yet remain unclear, however, is how the integrity of certain part of the female anatomy is to teach us about the eternal relations of Father and Son, of which surely the details have been established on other grounds.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ok, now I think I understand you better ... at first you seemed to say that God couldn't possibly be concerned about so small a physical detail as intact virginity.
Obviously, God is very much concerned about such temporal and physical details, since he directed St. John to write of knee-caps in his Gospel.

Well, as far as why it matters that Mary was a virgin during the very act of giving birth ... as I hinted at in the post ... Christ's temporal birth is meant to teach us about his eternal birth ... the fact that he is Son of Mary directs us to contemplate that he is also Son of the Father.
Now, as he did no harm to his Father when generated from eternity, neither did he harm his mother when born in time.
Likewise, as the divine Essence was not severed or ruptured when the Father begot the Son, neither was Mary's virginal cloister ruptured when she brought for her Son.

Are the comparisons clear now?
It is a simple historical fact that the in partu virginity of Mary was expressed more clearly in the early Church than was the equality of the Father and the Son -- consider that the apocryphal proto-Evangelium of James teaches that Mary remained a physical virgin, and this was long before the issue of the equality of the Father and Son was settled.

It is surprising to us, because we think of the Trinity as far more obvious that in partu physical virginity -- but, historically, Mary's physical integrity was spoken of much more clearly in the first days of the Church; and hence, this mystery helps us to understand many things about the Trinity.
[example: the early-Church-writer Origen defends the physical integrity of Mary's virginal cloister ... but he is not at all clear on the equality of the Father and the Son]

Peace to you. +

A Sinner said...

"It's an analogy ... why can't people understand that a simile is not literal equivalence?!"

Well, maybe not "beaming down," but the only other option (if you don't allow for miraculous STRETCHING) is, essentially, passing through in the manner of a subtle body, which would basically mean turning into a substance that temporarily lacked the properties that prevent most bodies (except things like light) from occupying the same space as something else at the same time.

To me this raises weird questions, though. Does it mean He, as a subtle body bigger than the birth canal itself...also "passed through" surrounding organs (like the bladder) on the way out? And did the infant-sized body, if the natural opening itself was not "stretched" pass through the surrounding lower-torso area?

What exactly are we to imagine this "passing out" would have LOOKED like if we were there watching it?

Alessandro said...

Dear “A Sinner”,
Have you never heard of quantum tunnelling? Wikipedia correctly defines it as “ the quantum mechanical phenomenon where a particle tunnels through a barrier that it classically could not surmount. This plays an essential role in several physical phenomena, such as the nuclear fusion that occurs in main sequence stars like the sun,[1] and has important applications to modern devices such as the tunnel diode.[2] […] Purely quantum mechanical concepts are central to the phenomenon, so quantum tunnelling is one of the defining features of quantum mechanics and the particle–wave duality of matter.”
Now, quantum tunnelling doesn’t ordinarily happen just because it requires high energies. But God didn’t need to suspend the laws he made. He could simply bind them on occasion. Jesus and the Holy Spirit were God, so they could apply quantum tunnelling so that Jesus’ body’s particles could phase between the particles of Mary’s body, more or less as a wave in a lake can pass around solid obstacles and continue its run. This means the effect occurred according to natural laws, yet was still naturally impossible to occur on a human body, which implies it was simply a miracle, a supernatural event. The true problem with our limited minds is that we find it difficult to perceive matter in its true nature as wave-particles, yet mathematics and experiments easily solved the problem.
Father’s example of light passing through glass is illuminating (sorry for the word play), since photons actually behave both as waves and particles. Indeed, if photons didn’t behave like waves, the shadows cast by a solid object would be sharp, while the border between light and shadow, called half-light or semidarkness, is the proof that some photons can dodge a solid object, behaving like a wave.
As for the outer look of the event, we could just conjecture. The apocryphal “Protoevangelium of James” described it thus: “And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary.” Of course that’s no inspired work, but it preserves the ancient tradition that Jesus didn’t open Mary’s womb at all, but simply passed through it.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A Sinner,
I really think that getting into to much of the biological detail regrading our Lady's reproductive organs is not very helpful ... certainly, the Church and the Church Fathers and Doctors stay away from this -- you may think it is because they are "ignorant" of female anatomy (you, and others, have insinuated this in the past), but the truth is that they knew well how birthing works (they had seen it many times with animals and at least been around human-birth with their own families) ... rather, the Fathers and Saints blush to speak so specifically of these matters and would not advise us to try to "picture exactly how it looked".

Still, because I too would like to be able to imagine something of the event, so as to pray better this Christmas, I would point you to the revelations given to the mystics (especially that given to St. Bridget).

I will be posting this tomorrow morning, but you can find it from a post I made last year as well --

Peace to you. +

Anonymous said...

from Bill Foley

Father Ryan,

You have the patience of Job.

I have noticed from the comments on various blogs that some people troll them with comments, who will not accept the teaching of the papal magisterium or of the Second Vatican Council.

I had a discussion with a person regarding the virgin birth that turned into a dispute. As a result, I consulted with a gynecologist/obstetrician, who told me that any type of natural birth would automatically break the hymen.

Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, for giving us the Immaculate Virgin Mary and the Incarnate Word. Mary was/is a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus Christ--this I accept and believe with all my being.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I was unaware or at least did not realize the significance of Mary's virginity during birth. As a mother with typically sometimes uncooperative young children, I often struggle to relate to Mary as parent to the perfect child. I can dimly relate as mother. I believe but struggle to understand the relationship of Jesus and Mary as fully human like us, but without sin unlike us. I try to reflect on the implications of how they lived at Nazareth. I hope to imitate, but I struggle to relate. I certainly need more reflection in light of Mary's virginity during birth. I assent, since it is the teaching of the Church. I struggle to relate. How do I imitate, when the experiences are so different? How would sinless Mary have raised, corrected, taught one who is sinful?


ElPadre said...

I think one thing which would help some is hearing from Blessed John Paul II who was a prophet of the Theology of the Body. He speaks twice n this subject in keeping with the constant teaching of our faith. The second time, he offers an explanation which may help those who are somehow having problems with this ancient teaching.
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."

Picard said...

Rev. Fr. erlenbush.

I am German, reading Ott and Müller in the original.

As you stated: Ott does not reject the physical-bodily aspect of the dogma (he only says that the details are not de fide).

But sorry, Müller rejects any physiological-bodily aspect at all.
The text that is quoted above (by Eremita) is clear, at least in the original German:
Müller really rejects any bodily integrity and any extraordinary biological happening in the birth at all!!

Well, perhaps a better translation of the German "...Es geht nicht um abweichende physilogische Besonderheiten in dem natürlichen Vorgang der Geburt (wie etwa...)..."
" does not mean any extraordinary physiological anomalities in the natural way of giving birth (as for example...)..."

Picard said...

And also if you consider the context, the whole one and a half pages of Müllers Katholische Dogmatik (1st or 2nd ed., p. 497-99) re that,

then it get´s even clearer.

He nowhere states positively that there is some corporal aspect of the dogma, some corporal inetgritiy.
He only denies the physiologcial and empircically verifyable aspects.
And in general, so at all!!

Müller totally spiritualizes the dogma and transforms it into sth. non-corporal, non-physiological.

And he ends with a quote of Rahner - where Rahner puts "virginal" and "virginity" in apostrophes, indicating that these words are not meant in the litteral sense (but in some analog way -- so not really coroporal-material-biological, but "spiritual", "theological", as modern theology would say).

This tendency of hyper-spiritualisation is found also elsewhere in Müllers works, f.e. re resurrection (c.f. op. cit. p. 300f) or re the Most Blessed Sacrament.
And as all modern-thinking theologians do re the ressurection of the flesh/body (carnis ressurectionis).

Here even Ratzingers work "Einführung in das Christentum" is not free of that unsound tendency, althoug he critizises exactly this false tendency of modern theologians himselfe, according to

“The cavalier divorce of ‘biology’ and theology omits precisely man from consideration; it becomes a self-contradiction insofar as the initial, essential point of the whole matter lies precisely in the affirmation that in all that concerns man the biological is also human and especially in what concerns the divinely-human nothing is ‘merely biological.’ … The attempt to preserve a spiritual, distilled remainder after the biological element has been eliminated denies the very spiritual reality which is the principal concern of the faith in the God become flesh.”

Picard said...

Rev. Fr.

You write answering the "Sinner":

The ordinary magisterium has declared that it was not an ordinary and natural birth --

The birth was "miraculous" ... and any explanation of a "virgin birth" which tries to "naturalize" the event (i.e. to explain it according to ordinary, scientific, natural terms) is contrary to the teaching of the Church.
So, please, stop trying to explain the miracle away by referring to natural and ordinary processes

so re a person that is much less hetorodox (as show his comments; this poor Sinner is not heterodox at all I would say. He holds expressely that there must be some physiological-miraculous aspect and that the hymen needs to be not-injured, what Müller expressely denies, see below) than Abf. Müller.

Müller is so clearly doing what you accused the Sinner of, that I can not get how you could excuse this Müllers heterodoxy.

Müller says that the dogma "does not mean some extraordinary physiological anomalies in the natural process of birth"

so he is really reducing this act of birth to a mere natural, physiologicially-unmiraculous event -

the whole content of the dogma were the "healing and redeeming influence of grace onto the human nature, "wounded" by original sin".

That´s heretical - but not what the Sinner claims.

Although you are of course right that the freedom of birth-pains is also a teaching of the oridnary magisterium.

But again, Müller explicitely rejects this as also the two other most securely implied details of this dogma.

He says that the dogma does not mean such physiological details "as f.e. the non-injury of the hymen, the non-opening of the birth canals and the non-occurence of birth-pains"., see above!

Picard said...

Fr., f.e. have you read the utterances of Müller re resurrection in his dogmatic (German 1st ed. p.300f)?

He says that a film-camera or a brute animal could not have filmed resp. seen the risen LORD. Principially.

So not only that the LORD could hinder this beeing seen by an animal (as He of course could) - but that it were totaly impossible for brute animals or technical apparatuses to do so - because they are not capable of a "transcendent experience".

So the apparitions of our LORD were mere transcendent events.

Seeing this same tendency of "hyper-anti-Capernaism" (to react to Bux), of "hyper-spiritualization", "de-materialization", "de-biologisation", critized in the above quote by Ratzinger?!

Greetings from Germany

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