The Dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin states that Mary–conceived without the stain of original sin–remained a physical virgin for her entire life. This is the basic definition, but it also includes the idea that Mary also never consciously and intentionally sinned through her entire life. For a simple discussion of the different Marian dogmas go here.
This dogma does NOT elevate Mary to the same condition of Jesus. Jesus’ perfection is that of God the Son–the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Mary’s sinless perfection is the result of her being full of grace. Her perfection is that of a human being made perfect by virtue of the redemptive work of her son on the cross. Mary is not divine. She is the first created human being fully restored to perfection through the work of Jesus Christ.
Is it possible that a man and woman might be married but not consummate the marriage? Isn’t that weird? Furthermore, doesn’t it negate the meaning of marriage? Yes, the normal understanding of marriage assumes that the couple will have sexual intercourse and produce children. However, this marriage was unique, and the idea that an older man might be marry a girl in order to look after her, but not have sexual relations is unknown in our society, but in the Middle East it is still accepted that a girl who is an orphan might be ‘adopted’ by an elderly relative or family friend through betrothal and marriage. This gave the girl security and a stable position in the society at a time when there were very few options for a girl other than marriage.
A marriage without sexual relations was accepted for these practical purposes, but there were also members of the Essene sect in first century Judaism who were married, but observed perfect continence within marriage. The husband and wife did not have sexual relations as part of their mutually committed religious vows. Therefore, a marriage without sex–while it seems so strange to us–was not out of the question in the time of Mary and Joseph.
It is difficult in our sex obsessed age to understand what the early Christians meant by perpetual virginity. This was not simply a negative definition. We tend to define this as “Mary never had sex.” The first Christians meant more than that, but not less. For them Mary’s perpetual virginity meant a fullness of goodness–an abundance of natural, simple wholeness and holiness. Mary was a virgin like a primitive forest is “virgin”. She was full and overflowing of natural, simple innocence and purity as a Spring morning or a mountaintop at sunset. The church has always tried to convey this sense of fullness of purity in this definition–not simply the fact that “Mary never had sex.” This is an adolescent, shallow and simplistic understanding. I discuss this idea of purity further in this article: Purity is Power.
Therefore the question which vexes so much of Protestant and Catholic discussion on this matter: “Did Mary have sex with Joseph and bear his children” rather misses the point. It focusses on the simple definition and debaters go around and around over the issue. The physical question is important because facts matter, but the meaning and implication of the perpetual virginity is much more important.
The physical virginity of the Blessed Virgin was preserved in order to retain and make obvious the Virgin Birth of Christ. If Mary had had children by Joseph everyone would have assumed that Jesus was his son conceived out of wedlock. Any idea of a miraculous virgin birth would have been inconceivable if Mary had had other children. Furthermore, the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin is a sign–not that there is anything wrong with marital sexual relations, or that there is something “dirty” about sex, but because, by remaining a virgin Mary is identifying more closely with her Son, and showing a “better way” of celibacy for the kingdom.
To explain this doctrine to a Protestant we should say, “The perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin show us the first person who has vowed herself completely and utterly to Christ. Her love is given to no other person. She shows the way of complete and total goodness and shows us what it means to be completely redeemed by Christ.”
The Protestant will very likely still disagree, but he will understand that Catholicism holds up Mary as a model of a new kind of holiness–one which by supernatural power of the Almighty points the way to a complete and all consuming love for Christ the like of which they have never imagined.
More Reading: For a full discussion of this topic go to Once a Virgin Always a Virgin? –chapter four of my debate with David Gustafson called Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate.