Dialogue: Mary’s “In Partu” Virginity (During Birth)

Dialogue: Mary’s “In Partu” Virginity (During Birth) June 19, 2020

with Ryan Grant

The following is from a Facebook discussion (3-9-17) about the paper, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity “In Partu” (a Miraculous, Non-Natural Childbirth) is a Binding Catholic Dogma [9-24-08; expanded on 9-21-15]. Words of Ryan Grant will be in blue; those of Phillip Campbell in green.


What does it mean, then, to be a virgin “during” the birth? If the traditional language is “before, during, and after” I say that “during” makes no sense unless it is talking about physical virginity (i.e., an intact hymen). There would be no reason to say “during.” And we know that’s what the Church fathers meant by it.

I think the denial of this binding doctrine is a specimen of theological liberalism. If you read, for example, Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon’s remarks in my paper, he explains what has been the traditional understanding.

I don’t claim absolute certainty on this, but that is my best understanding. Sometimes (distressingly) we see aspects of theological liberalism at pretty high levels in the Church. It all comes down to what “in partu” has been understood to mean.

My understanding is it was not dogma but sententia certa: one degree below dogma.

In partu is a tricky thing…believe it or not, the definition of virginity has actually changed throughout history.

We take virginity to mean “never had sex.” The medievals and ancients took it to mean the hymen was intact. In the ancient world, a woman who tripped and fell and broke her hymen was no longer a virgin. So the ancients knew Mary was perpetual Virgin, but for them that necessarily entailed that her hymen had to remain intact, it could not even be broken by natural means (such as childbirth). It was necessary to maintain her virginity.

To modern people who do not accept that definition of virginity, the teaching of Christ’s in partu birth makes little sense, at least in terms of being necessary to preserve Mary’s virginity.

It has always been held, until 1965 apparently or perhaps the date of this letter, that the Blessed Virgin suffered no pain in pariendo, and this is the sense that the Church Fathers understood, as well as all theologians and the Church’s constant teaching, precisely because it was not in the normal way a woman gives birth.

Among the Fathers it was certain. St. Jerome taught: “There was no midwife there, nor sedulous women attendants … she wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.” (Nulla ibi obstetrix, nulla muliercularum sedulitas intercessit … Pannis, inquit involvit infantem et posuit in praesepio).

St. John of Damascus also affirms it: “No pleasure preceded this delivery, no birth-throes accompanied it.” (De Fide Orth. IV, 15, (Quam nativitatem nulla coluptas anteivit nec dolor quidem in partu secutus est.)

St. Bernard says: Christ’s conception was without reproach, and his birth without pain.” (Serm. de Virg. Nativitate, 4: “Conceptus fuit sine pudore, partus sine dolore.”)

St. Thomas Aquinas also confirms this: “Christ came forth from the closed womb of His Mother, and, thus there was no violence of opening the passage. Consequently there was no pain in that birth, as neither was there any corruption.” (Summa, III, qu. 35, art. 6, Christus egressus est ex clauso utero matris et sic nulla violentia apertionis meatuum ibi fuit, et proper hoc in illo partu nullus fuit dolor, sicut nec aliqua corruptio).

We can add to this the numerous testimonies of the Fathers, preeminently St. Ambrose, that prove Christ could exit the closed womb without causing any pain just in the manner that Christ entered the upper room after the resurrection, though the doors were locked. (De Instit. Virg., VIII, n. 52; Cf. St. Augustine, ep. 137 ad Volus.; Pope Hormisdas, ep. 79 ad Iustin.)

St. Ambrose makes it clear that Christ passed through the blessed Virgin,

The Prophet Ezechiel says that he saw the building of a city upon a very high mountain. The city had many gates. Of these one is described as shut. what is this gate but Mary? And shut because a virgin. Mary then, is the gate through which Christ came into this world, when he was shed forth by a virginal birth, without loosing the bars of virginity. The inclosure of purity remained unscathed, and the seals of integrity were kept inviolate, as he went forth from the virgin … A good gate is Mary, that was closed and was not opened. By her Christ passed, but he opened not.

Dr. Robert Fastiggi, a personal friend of mine, and professor of theology, is revising Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. He has verified that Dr. Ott revised the section on in partu in the book (since the 1952 version had some liberalism in it), and he is the translator of the new text from German into English. I linked to all this above. He sent the revision of this portion to me, even before the revised book had been published (it’s still not). Dr. Fastiggi says it is de fide. See the revised portion:

Mary’s Virginity During Childbirth: Ott’s Revision & Latin Analysis [9-29-15]

On the other hand (in all fairness), Dr. Fastiggi has told me that Ott’s classifications of dogma are not absolutely unquestionable. So that would mean that folks can dissent about that (sigh!). . . I go by them, however, since I see nothing else that is as good of a schema of classifying doctrines, as his work.

Cardinal Franzelin, a peritus at Vatican I, makes it clear that this is not a birth as other births:

Nothing seems more fitting to me than if some properties, such as those of glorified bodies, just as they were in the body of the Word so they were also shared in the virginal body of the mother by the Son, and in that, I understand they were anticipated not habitually but transiently in the in the very birth and for this purpose. This method of understanding rests upon the explications of the holy Fathers. Just as St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:44) calls the glorified body ‘spiritual’ (soma pneumatikon) by reason of its qualities, among which is incorruption (en aphtharsia) so St. Leo the great (serm. 4 in nativ. c. 3) says the birth of Christ into the light was a ‘spiritual birth’ and the author of the Christmas homily cited by St. Cyril in the Council of Ephesus says: ‘Neither did God suffer any division (by begetting the word), for he begot divinely, nor did the Virgin suffer corruption in giving birth, for she gave birth ‘spiritually’ (oute ē parthenos phthoran upemeine tekousa, pneumatikos gar eteke) … in God, for it is not fitting to attend to natural things, but to believe in the omnipotence of the agent.’ Therefore, just as the body after the resurrection does not cease to be a true body, although it is made a partaker of certain supernatural qualities, on account of which it is called ‘spiritual’; so the birth of the infant Jesus from the Virgin mother was a true birth, but supernatural qualities were communicated to the virginal body of the mother, that the infant would come forth without any harm and corruption (ek dunamei en aphtharsia) to his virgin Mother; and on account of this supernatural mode the nativity can be called a ‘spiritual birth’, and the mother can be said to have given birth ‘spiritually’. (De Verbo Incarnato, pg. 120, my translation)

In all the works of theologians, where they categorize propositions as de fide, proxima fidei Catholicae, sententia certa, sententia communis; or condemn propositions as haeretica, erronea, temeraria, offensive piarum aurium, etc., these are only unquestionable if so characterized by the magisterium, or, if there is a unanimous witness of theologians using that classification (Pius IX, Tuas Libenter). For example, all theologians teach proposition x is de fide, but there is no formal magisterial decision, it cannot be denied without a note of erronea. If it is mixed, then the lowest classification is taken as what the average person would be held to, unless it is but an exception or two, then it would be called “communissima” (most common) while noting the exceptions. So, Baptism of Desire is held by some theologians to be de fide, others proxima fidei Catholicae, to most sententia certa, and a handful senentia communis; the sense is it is infallibly taught by theologians in a unanimous consensus that there is baptism of desire for explicit faith, but what consequence the teaching has to someone that denies it is in doubt. In all cases the person sins against faith, but how grievously is unclear. The meaning of these distinctions is discussed more at length in Ott.

That’s heavy, Ryan! So what is your understanding as to in partu (defined as an intact hymen) then?

Essentially that Christ was born by passing through the Virgin, just as he did at the Last Supper, as St. Ambrose notes, following St. Jerome who says it simply happened with no need for a midwife.

I meant in terms of dogmatic classification . . .

Based on what I have seen, it would be a certain theological conclusion (sententia certa). The reason is, following what St. Peter Canisius says as well as St. Robert Bellarmine, and a few others, it is intrinsically connected to that doctrine and is a necessary consequent, attested to by the fathers in a consensus (let alone the theologians). So based on the teaching of the above named, it could not be said to be de fide because it was not explicitly defined at Ephesus, but is rather a consequence of the definition that is certain. Practically it can be no more denied than if it were de fide, but at the same time de fide is the wrong classification.

Then why does Ott call it de fide? How could he be so mistaken (assuming you are correct)?

But you’re saying that the average Catholic ought to accept it, as just a notch under de fide?

Should I use the language of “binding”?

Yes. That would work. Some writers note a thing is de fide if it seems that there would be no other conclusion and so it must be what the Council meant when it spoke. This is why St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Alphonsus Liguori and a number of theologians call Baptism of Desire de fide after the Council of Trent (baptismo vel voto ejus) because it seemed the Council meant nothing else and it has no other sense. It is a diversity that the magisterium historically tolerated.

So individuals can believe something is de fide, but to be really really de fide, it has to be virtually universal consensus?

Yes, or at least, to hold others to it in that way. For my money it is de fide and I agree with Ott, but we can’t go beyond what the Church has historically said and, most theologians I can call to mind (Pohle-Preuss, Billot, Lennerz, etc.) call it sententia certa. I would modify the paper [and note] that it is a certain theological conclusion (sententia certa) with a discussion of what that means which you can find in Ott, and note that others (c.f. Ott) hold it as de fide.

It is actually good to flesh this out. That way you do not get blind-sided by someone pointing this out and arguing, like pro-choicers do, that one is not held to believe it if it is not de fide.

In fact, that distinction is apt. What the ordinary magisterium binds the Catholic faithful to, by its supreme office, though not a solemn judgment is still binding on the intellect and will, and may be infallible by the consistent teaching of that doctrine in the tradition, though it is not in all its aspects irreformable, unlike the solemn magisterium.

The judgments of theologians are of a similar vain. One is only allowed freedom in those propositions classed as “common opinion”, and there while observing respect for the opposing view. To all the rest, they are infallible if taught by all theologians, per what Pius IX teaches in Tuas Libenter, and consequently must be believed as true. Common opinion, by its nature, admits dissenting opinion and as such cannot be a true consensus, which is why it is never infallible unless elevated by magisterial teaching.

Thus, a teaching such as this in partu is so certain a conclusion that all Catholics are bound to believe it.

What do you call a position that holds that it was a natural birth just as any other, in terms of being natural: with the pain, labor, blood and everything else that women go through?

And how do you respond to the charge that in partu is “anti-sex” or even derived from Gnosticism, etc.?

In the past, it would have received the note of “erronea” since it is contrary to a consensus of the Fathers and the Theologians, and the sense intended by Ephesus.

I’m not sure what anti-sex would mean, in terms of relations or what is now called gender? If in partu is anti-sex, so is the Virgin Birth itself. Yet it is in scripture.

As far as gnosticism, is it gnostic to follow what all the Church Fathers taught? Or to create new ideas based on our private understanding? The latter sounds more gnostic to me.

But taking the question in its sense, if postulating a miraculous birth is gnostic, the charge assumes postulating a miracle without the body is gnostic; thus so is a miraculous rising from the dead, or passing through the door in the upper room, or how a creature is the mother of God; or how Christ’s body is present in the Eucharist equally gnostic, since all are equally miraculous.

Lastly, I never knew St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Sophronius, St. Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Alphonsus Liguori and all the theologians commissioned and approved by the Church that affirmed this doctrine were gnostics.

I think the notion that we hear Protestants expressing is that Catholics do all they can to dissociate from sexual things. So, rather than Mary having a natural birth like all other women (being like them in most respects), the Church comes along in its puritanism and says (as if the doctrine were just pulled out of a hat) that she didn’t go through any of that. Thus, women can’t relate to her.

In my vigorous discussions at Patheos, several women were highly offended by the whole discussion, especially the mention of hymens. I didn’t say it at the time, but I was thinking that circumcision would seem to me to be equally as “offensive”: dealing as it does, with private and sexual organs also. And that’s all over the Bible.

It’s “anti-sex” (so we are told) because it takes away some of the more physical and painful elements of the whole process. And of course celibacy is also railed against. To me it’s all irrelevant. It assumes beforehand that the Church is anti-sex, and promulgates these doctrines as a result.

But as you say, such a view would spill onto other doctrines, like the Virgin Birth and to some extent, the incarnation.

I’ve decided to retain the title of my article, because the doctrine remains a dogma and remains binding.

I really appreciate your insight on a rather subtle and complex discussion. Now I can offend a few less folks than before . . . LOL

Hah, don’t count on it ;-)

“Binding” is safer, while noting that some theologians call it de fide, c.f. Ott. I’m sure there are more I just can’t call them to mind. Look up, however, in Ott what a sententia certa is.


Facebook friend Nicholas El-Hajj brought up two excellent Bible texts in this regard:

Isaiah 7:14 (NASB) “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. [see many other translations that include “virgin” rather than “young woman”]

Isaiah 66:7-8 (RSV) “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son. [8] Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? . . .”


Photo credit: The Nativity (c. 1776), by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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