Way back in August 2009 I wrote concerning the in partu inviolability of Our Lady (i.e, that her hymen was unbroken by the birth of Christ) that “Rome acknowledges this opinion but does not commit us to it“.
Turns out I was wrong. This is more than a pious opinion. A reader writes:
I’m not an expert on anatomy but I take it that there are significant physical changes that take place in a virgin’s body after she marries and engages in the marital act for the first time—and especially after she gives birth for the first time. The traditional Catholic understanding of Mary’s virginity is a very robust notion and includes not only so called “sex-act virginity” and “seed-act virginity” but also freedom from those physical changes I’ve just mentioned. This is what the Fathers meant when they talked about Mary being “incorrupt” in her giving birth to the Lord. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to this “incorruption” with the phrase “physical virginal integrity”. The traditional Catholic doctrine of Mary’s in partu virginity involves just this “physical virginal integrity”. So that even after Mary gave birth to Our Lord, her physical virginal integrity was preserved. This is obviously impossible according to the natural course of things. So this retention of her physical virginal integrity is traditionally regarded as miraculous.
Now we find direct and indirect evidence that Mary’s in partu virginity, in the sense I have specified above, was believed in before the 4th century. BUT it is especially during the 4th century that it becomes all the more steadfastly held because it was at that time that it begun to be contested by various heretics. In the fourth century Fathers, whenever Mary’s total life-long virginity is defended, so her in-partu virginity is either explicitly asserted or assumed. You can see this in Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Epiphanius, etc. (I’m getting all this from Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church. This is a great book that is a must buy for your Mariology library.)
Sometimes Jerome is brought out as the exception. It is said that Jerome wrote that it is possible that Mary even suffered and bled when she gave birth to Christ (this would be contrary to the traditional understanding of Mary’s in partu virginity). But this is the exception that proves the rule. This is what I mean. The Heretic Helvidius argued that the “brothers of the Lord” we read of in the gospels were other sons of Mary. Jerome defended Mary’s life-long virginity in his treatise “On the Perpetual Virginity of Mary Against Helvidius.” It is in this treatise that Jerome entertains the possibility that Mary suffered and bled when giving birth to the Lord. But then the synod of Milan was held in AD 390 and it condemned Jovinian, another heretic who denied Mary’s perpetual virginity. But this synod also upheld Mary’s in partu virginity. So Jerome’s friends notified him of this and it is interesting to note that when Jerome writes against Jovinius (after having been informed about the synod of Milan), Jerome is silent about the issue of Mary’s in partu virginity. In his later writings you then find him interpreting Scripture in conformity with and making statements about Mary’s in partu virginity. I think it is clear that he deliberately changed his mind on this issue when he saw Ambrose and others continuing to uphold the traditional doctrine. I think the only reason Jerome in his younger years felt free to question the doctrine is because it was found in the apocryphal second century Proto-gospel of James (Jerome would also go on to deny the idea that the “brothers” of the Lord were sons of Joseph from a previous marriage, another idea that is found in the Proto-gospel of James.)
But in any event, by the end of the fourth century and into the fifth, Mary’s in partu virginity is upheld unanimously. We can see this in the declarations of various ancient synods and papal letters especially. Here is a list of authorities I have taken from Juan Luis Bastero’s book Mary, Mother of the Redeemer (by the way, I recommend Bastero as the best book on Mariology that can currently be purchased. It’s a must buy):
1. (DS 291): Pope Leo in his Dogmatic Letter to Flavian (AD 449), patriarch of Constantinople, against Monophysite heresy, worded Catholic belief on Mary’s virginity in Christ’s conception and birth as follows: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mother, who gave him birth without losing her virginity as she conceived him without losing her virginity…”
2. (DS 294): Here is more from the same Letter to Flavian. “And so, the Son of God, descending from his heavenly throne, yet not leaving the glory of the Father, enters into this lowly world. (He comes) in a new order, generated by a new birth…the miraculous manner of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ born from the womb of a virgin does not make his nature different from ours.” (This dogmatic letter, also called the Tome of Leo, has always been taken as an authentic formula of faith. The 500 Fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon received it enthusiastically and exclaimed, “This is the faith of the Fathers, the faith of the Apostles. This is what we believe it to be, and with us all who think rightly. Let those who say the contrary be anathema. Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo!”)
3. (DS 442): The profession of faith of Pope Pelagius (AD 557): “The virginal integrity of the mother was safeguarded, because in the same way as she had conceived him virginally, she gave birth to him preserving her virginity intact.”
4. (DS 503): The Lateran Synod of AD 649, presided over by Pope St. Martin I: “If anyone does not, according to the holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.” (This third canon of the Lateran Synod, although not an Ecumenical Council canon, is nonetheless considered to be a true ex cathedra dogmatic definition by Pope Martin I. The reasons which support this are: the council was presided over and sanctioned by the Pope, who proposed this doctrine as a condition for being in communion with the Roman See and condemned its denial as anathema; furthermore, the Third Council of Constantinople (Denzinger 555) fully accepted the faith formulated in this canon.)
5. The Eleventh Council of Toledo (AD 675) includes the following doctrine in its Creed: “the Son alone assumed a true human nature, a sinless nature, from the holy and immaculate Virgin Mary for the liberation of the human race. He was born from her in a new manner and with a new birth: in a new manner because, though invisible in his divinity, he appears visibly in his humanity, and with a new birth because an undefiled Virgin who did not have intercourse with man was made fruitful by the Holy Spirit and so furnished the substance for his human flesh. This Virgin Birth can neither be fully understood nor can another example of it be pointed out; were it fully understood, it would not be miraculous; were there another example, it would cease to be unique.”
6. In 1555 Paul IV published a bull, Cum quorumdam, to counter Protestant errors of the time; the document rejected the views of those who say that “Our Lord was not conceived from the Holy Spirit according to the flesh in the womb of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin but, as other men, from the seed of Joseph, or that the same Blessed Virgin Mary is not truly the mother of God and did not retain her virginity intact before the birth, in the birth, and perpetually after the birth”. (Denzinger 1880)
7. Clement VIII provided an authentic explanation of the mystery of Mary’s virginity in the Motu proprio Pastoralis Romani apropos of the third article of the Creed. He taught that when it says “born of the virgin Mary”, it means that here too there is something very exceptional “since the Son of God came out of the womb of the Mother at the end of the ninth month, without pain or loss on the part of the mother herself, leaving no sign whatsoever of his emergence…and therefore it is said that the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ was virgin before the birth, in the birth and after the birth.”
OK, now let’s look at our most recent Catechism. Here is what it says at 499:
Mary – “ever-virgin”
499 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.154 In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin”.156
Now let’s check the footnotes (always important to do):
Footnote 154 lists seven texts out of Denzinger:
DS 291: This is first quote listed above from Pope Leo’s letter to Flavian
DS 294: This is the second quote listed above from Pope Leo’s letter
DS 427: This is a citation from the ecumenical council of Constantinople that call’s Mary “ever-Virgin”
DS 442: This is the third quote listed above from Pope Pelagius
DS 503: This is the fourth quote listed above from the Lateran Synod
DS 571: This is a quote from the Council of Toledo XVI (AD 693). It says, “And as the Virgin acquired the modesty of virginity before conception, so also she experienced no loss of her integrity; for she conceived a virgin, gave birth a virgin, and after birth retained the uninterrupted modesty of an intact virgin…” (This Council of Toledo is not to be confused with the one cited above at number five.)
DS 1880: This is a quote from the Ecumenical Council of Trent that distinguishes the three stages of Mary’s virginity.
Footnote 155 lists one text from Vatican II’s Lumen gentium:
LG 57: “This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to His death it is shown first of all when Mary, arising in haste to go to visit Elizabeth, is greeted by her as blessed because of her belief in the promise of salvation and the precursor leaped with joy in the womb of his mother. This union is manifest also at the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it,(*) when the Mother of God joyfully showed her firstborn Son to the shepherds and Magi. [* here is a foot note that back’s up Mary’s in partu virginity with citations from the Lateran Synod and the Letter from Pope Leo to Flavian, the same two texts we’ve seen above, and also a text from St. Ambrose]Footnote 156 lists another text from Lumen Gentium:
LG 52: This text simply refers to Mary as “Ever-Virgin”.
So what can we say after looking at all these authorities? Well, for sure, Mary’s in partu virginity, in the traditional sense, is a dogma of the faith. The universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church has infallibly transmitted it to us. There is a moral majority of 4th century Fathers who assent to it as part of the catholic faith and this is enough evidence to show that the 4th century universal and ordinary Magisterium taught it as being of faith. Then you have all these other councils (albeit local councils) that put it forth as a dogma of the faith. The fourth citation above, the third canon of the Lateran Synod, is probably also an ex cathedra definition. So not only do we have the universal and ordinary Magisterium passing this doctrine on to us as a dogma, we probably also have the extraordinary Magisterium defining it for us (via a Papal ex cathedra statement from Pope Martin I). At least though, it is a dogma of the faith passed on by the universal and ordinary Magisterium. Really all we need to prove this is the 7th citation above, Clement VIII’s authentic explanation of the article in the creed that says, “born of the virgin Mary”. This virginal birth is a distinct mystery from the virginal conception. This virginal birth, in the traditional sense, is part of the creed. So it’s a dogma, passed on to us by the universal and ordinary Magisterium.
What about the CCC? Well, it just repeats these authorities and so from the CCC we also learn that this doctrine is a dogma of the faith. It’s clear.
Now here is the kicker. Why has this dogma ever been questioned? Why is it so little understood today? Starting in the 50s, we had a number of catholic theologians who basically just pulled a modernist move. They started invoking “scientific progress” in the explanation of our dogmas. So we have guys like Messenger (1948), Mitterer (1952), Clifford (1953), Rahner (1960), Galot (1960), and Gonzalez (1988) arguing that we need no longer hold up Mary’s in partu virginity in the traditional sense. (I’m getting all this from Bastero…)
Their argument has caught on like wildfire. I think it’s popularity is due to that perennial fear of “science” that we moderns all so subject to. Just label something “science” and immediately we lose our heads, start trembling and ask no questions. But here we are fearing where there is no need to fear. So what if our current understanding of virginity usually excludes physical virginal integrity? The meaning of our dogmas is not determined by current conventions but by the Church’s perpetual understanding of her own formulas. This is the clear teaching of Vatican I and Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. No pretentious appeal to “science” can change this. In this case, the Church has always included in the definition of Mary’s virginity not just “sex-act virginity” and “seed-act virginity” (as our modernists say) but also physical virginal integrity.
This understanding of virginity is also not just the traditional catholic understanding but also the scriptural and patristic understanding of virginity. See Deuteronomy 22:13-21:
 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and then spurns her,  and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings an evil name upon her, saying, `I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her the tokens of virginity,’  then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the tokens of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate;  and the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, `I gave my daughter to this man to wife, and he spurns her;  and lo, he has made shameful charges against her, saying, “I did not find in your daughter the tokens of virginity.” And yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.  Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him;  and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.  But if the thing is true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman,  then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.
What are these “tokens of virginity” that the angry father is showing to the elders? He’s showing them the bed sheets with blood on them. This blood is the result of his daughter’s first marital act she engaged in with her new husband on their wedding night. For modesty’s sake, I don’t need to get any more explicit.
Also, to this day, I hear that certain groups of Orthodox Jews bring forth the sheets with the blood on them after their daughter’s wedding night and they actually celebrate and show these sheets off and like dance around with them…as proof that their daughter remained a virgin all the way up until her marriage.
In any event, this scriptural understanding of virginity as including physical virginal integrity is also certainly the view of the Fathers.
And it is in terms of this understanding of virginity that the Church has taught that Mary remained a virgin not only before but also during her giving birth to the Lord Jesus. All the above cited authorities are clear on this. The only way we can understand this in partu virginity is that it is miraculous. This is the dogma.
Now what about the text from Ludwig Ott that Ted references? Well, Ott is a pretty good place to start when studying Catholic dogma, but he is not infallible and you just need to read more widely. Ott unfortunately caves in to this modernist tendency and he’s writing just at the time it is coming into vogue. In fact he cites as his authority for it Mitterer (1952), one of the prime architects of this error.
his heretical re-interpretation of the dogma of Mary’s in partu virginity has not escaped the radar of the Magisterium over the past 60 years. Here is an excerpt again from Bastero:
“In 1961, the Holy Office (now the CDF) took issue with the teachings of some modern authors who treat of the dogma of virginity in partu “clashing clearly with the traditional doctrine of the Church and with the pious feeling of the faithful” (cf. EphMar 11 (1961) 137-138). In a recent document, issued on the occasion of the 16th centenary of the plenary council of Capua where Pope Siricius condemned Bonosus for denying the perpetual virginity of Mary, John Paul II sums up the teaching of the Magisterium by saying that Mary “gave birth truly and in a virginal way, whereby after her delivery she was still a virgin; a virgin […] also as regards what affect her physical integrity”. (JP II Address, ‘The Virginity of Mary’, no 6, Osservatore Romano, 25/26 May 1992, p. 13)”
So those warning shots were fired in 1961 and 1992. And then the Catechism came out. As we see above, it is careful to uphold the dogma.
Here are some further and more explicitly articulated reasons why the re-interpreters of this dogma are wrong:
1. According to Church tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium it is not enough to accept just that Jesus’ conception was virginal; his virginal birth must also be professed. (If the “virgin birth” just meant the sort of birth a woman underwent who conceived virginally (which is what our modernists are saying), it would be superfluous and redundant for the tradition to make a point out of how the virginal birth is a distinct marvel from the virginal conception. If the former is reducible to the latter, why bother mentioning it?)
2. These authors exclude physical integrity from the notion of virginity, but for Scripture, the Fathers and the tradition, it is an essential part of it. Any invocation of natural science is just bluff. This is not an issue about science. There are some things in life that are up to human convention and socialization. What virginity is and is not is one of these. The understanding of virginity that excludes physical virginal integrity is no more objective or “scientific” or true than the understanding that includes it. And the Church understands Mary’s virginity in terms of the later understanding and not the former.
3. According to the Fathers, the uninterrupted physical virginal integrity of Mary in her giving birth to the Lord is not something merely bodily. It is seen as a sign of supernatural realities. It testifies to the miracle of the virginal conception and in so doing testifies to Christ’s Deity. If Mary lost her physical virginal integrity, there would be no proof/sign that she conceived Jesus virginally and so there would be one less highly powerful proof/sign that Jesus was the Son of God. This would be a state of affairs that would be highly unfitting.
4. Mary is exempt from the curse of original sin. Even death itself comes to her in as much as she is naturally mortal, not as a punishment for sin. So if pain in child birth is a result of original sin, then why would Mary have to undergo this curse? She is not cursed. She is blessed above all women because she is the immaculate Mother of God.
5. Physical integrity as a constitutive element in virginity is explicitly mention in canon 3 of the Lateran Synod: “The ever-virgin Mary conceived without seed through the action of the Holy Spirit…and incorruptibiliter gave him birth without any detriment to her virginity, which remained inviolable even after his birth”. You really can’t get around the word incorruptibiliter. It upholds the traditional understanding of Mary’s in partu virginity. Other texts could be cited to the same effect.
My apologies for my ignorance. Thanks for the abundance of information on this point! Merry Feast of the Incarnation!