A reader asks about papal infallibility and the perpetual virginity of Mary

A reader asks about papal infallibility and the perpetual virginity of Mary November 16, 2015

He writes:

     Obviously Pope Francis’s trip to America captured much attention but I wonder if Catholics are prepared for the fruit of that visit…..being asked questions about the Catholic Faith. In the last week I found myself in situations that when non Catholics found out I was Catholic started asking questions about the whys and hows of my Faith. I’m ok with apologetics and knowing my Faith but as you may agree the Catholic Faith is a never ending learning experience.

Yup.

I was hit with two questions that I did not have answers for right off so I said I would get back with them. I haven’t found anything yet on the internet and I will be seeing these people in a couple of days. First question, actually questions, regards Papal infallibility…..

When a Pope puts out an encyclical how does one determine what is a teaching from what is opinion?

All of it is teaching.  Not all of it is infallible.  But as I have pointed out in the past, only a fool demands that something be infallible before being willing to consider it.  My garage mechanic and doctor are not infallible, but that would be a stupid reason to blithely dismiss them when they say I need a new radiator or I have to have surgery for that melanoma on my shoulder.  The more sensible approach to Magisterial teaching is to receive it with docility and try to listen to what the Pope is saying and how it reflects the historic teaching of the Church rather than pick over it looking for loopholes and avenues of escape. Very little of what the pope has to say is ever infallibly defined.

 It was in reference to Laudato Si. and he said it seems you have to know beforehand. Encyclicals are not ex cathedra statements right? But they may contain previous ex cathedra statements?

Ex Cathedra statements are rare in papal history.  But our approach to Church teaching as Catholics is not supposed to be Minimum Daily Adult Requirement obedience.  Here is Lumen Gentium:

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)

A possibly germane post is  here, though it is directed toward fractious Catholics, not unbelievers.

Second question…..

Why is the teaching that Mary remain a virgin after the birth of Christ necessary?

It’s not, strictly speaking, “necessary” (as though the Church invented her perpetual virginity and then demanded that everybody believe it because of some weird fetish about virginity).  It’s “necessary” in the sense that it is “necessary” historians believe and profess that Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, 1865: because it’s true.  It happened.  Mary was, in fact, perpetually a virgin and had no other children besides Jesus.  That’s the basis of all the Church’s dogmas: reality.

The real question is “Why does the Church think that *matters*?”  There are all sorts of historical truths that the Church has not defined dogmatically.  Mary drank water.  Mary breathed oxygen.  Mary ate food.  But the Church sees in her perpetual virginity what the prophet said She should see: a sign.  (“Behold, the Lord himself will give  you a sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and you shall call his name Emmanuel.”)  For more info, go here, here, here, here and here.

Hope that helps!

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  • Paperboy_73

    I’m also quite interested in the question of Mary’s perpetual virginity, because I’ve always been rather discomfited about the whole thing. Presumably, in her marriage with Joseph, she would have had to make the deliberate choice not to have sexual relations with her husband. But I can’t see any reason for that, as sex within marriage is not sinful at all, but rather a gift to be celebrated.

    Does the perpetual virginity of Mary imply that, even within the state of marriage, virginity is somehow purer than base sexual relations? And how would Mary the person, rather than Mary the symbol, have come to this deliberate conclusion in her life? What would the thinking there have been?

    • SC

      As the Magisterium has continuously taught, our Lady was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. Although Mr. Shea failed to expand on this matter, Mary’s virginity was a physical one as well as a moral one. Our Lord came through her womb as sunlight passes through a window without taking away her virginal perfection. Virginity, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, is superior to the married state. This is a dogmatic teaching of our Holy Faith. Furthermore, our Lady’s Virginity was offered to God when she was only a small child. There was never a thought on her part of engaging in relations, nor was there any thought on the part of St. Joseph, who was also a virgin. This is why the Church gives the title, “virginal spouse” of Mary to the foster father of Christ and the true husband of Mary. Marriage happens at the moment of consent and consummation is not required. This was a Josephite Marriage, as the Fathers tell us. Marriage with relations, although a true good in life, is inferior to the higher vocation of celibacy / virginity. As St. Paul clearly teaches one is “better” than the other. Virginity for the sake of the Kingdom, therefore, is “purer.” The primary reason for marriage is procreation and the raising of children. At the same time, it is also, as the Church teaches, a remedy for concupiscence and the weakness of the flesh. Our Lord praised those who were called to a higher life…a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom. For those who can take it, let them take it.

      • Virginity, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, is superior to the married state. This is a dogmatic teaching of our Holy Faith.

        Well, yes and no. There is more than one kind of hierarchy of goodness, because there is more than one kind of goodness. The variety of creation – and particularly the variety and freedom of the human person – reflects the infinity of God.

        So yes, virginity and perpetual celibacy is superior to marriage insofar as in heaven we will neither marry nor be given in marriage, so celibacy anticipates this aspect of heaven more perfectly.

        But no, virginity is not morally superior to marriage, as if marriage was merely a concession to the morally weak. Marriage, too, is an anticipation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and in that way could (I suppose) be called “superior” to celibacy. But nobody makes a big deal about this because most people don’t need to explain their desire for marriage.

        Think of it this way: an ordained priest is superior to a layperson in terms of his participation in the sacrament of Holy Orders; he reflects the sacramental and ecclesial aspects of Christ’s priesthood in a more perfect way than a layperson. But that does not make him any more of a Christian than any of the baptized, nor does it (in and of itself) make him morally better than any layperson.

        To paraphrase St. Paul: there are as many ways to achieve “perfection” in the Body of Christ as there are members of the Body of Christ. (See 1 Corinthians 12, esp. vv. 12-26).

        As I understand it (Mark can correct me if I’m off here), the perpetual virginity of Our Lady has less to do with celibate or marital foreshadowing of heaven than it has to do with the consecration of the Temple (or of a Church or Eucharistic vessels) than it has with the vocation to celibacy or to marriage. Just as we do not use an altar as an ordinary table, or a chalice or paten to hold anything except the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ, so Our Lady was set apart from “ordinary use” as a special (indeed, unique) vessel for God in the world.

        The marriage of Our Lady to St. Joseph was likewise unique in the history of marriage. A Josephite marriage is not (and should not be) normative, though in rare cases a couple may find themselves called to such a marriage. And while you are correct that consent makes the marriage (Canon 1057), that consent is among other things ordered toward conjugal relations (Canon 1061), “to which marriage is ordered by its very nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.” This is why an unconsummated marriage is able to be annulled.

        • [But no, virginity is not morally superior to marriage, as if marriage was merely a concession to the morally weak.]

          “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman, but because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband…This I say by way of concession,* however, not as a command.”

          “Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do,but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.”

          Some [are incapable of marriage] because they have renounced marriage* for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.

          I’m not a theologian, but it has always sounded to me like that was exactly the case. I don’t understand why it can’t be both that marriage is a very good and beautiful thing, rightly ordered thing, AND celibacy for those who can an even better thing.

          • I think you misunderstand: I am saying exactly that “marriage is a very good and beautiful thing, rightly ordered thing, AND celibacy for those who can an even better thing.”

            I’m simply concerned that “those who can” renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom (or, maybe more accurately, who are called to it) are seen as “better” in every possible way. That’s just not true. It is better in many ways, but not all. For example, celibate people are not better at making babies than married people. And making babies is among the first commands of God (be fruitful and multiply).

            Most people in most times and places are tempted to sort the world into “good people” and “bad people,” or to rank people along some hierarchy of goodness. This kind of judgment does not belong to us, but to God, and my own sense is that God does not judge according to which box we sort ourselves into. Rather than finding the “best box” and trying to fit into it or figure out who’s in and who’s out, we should keep our eyes on Christ himself, and not worry about what others are called to. (See John 21.20-22.)

            In other words, don’t seek celibacy because it’s “better”, but because God calls you to it. Likewise, don’t seek marriage unless God calls you to that. And meanwhile, recognize that God loves you and calls you to holiness in whatever state of life you happen to be in.

            • fair enough. I agree completely.

          • Paperboy_73

            I never saw Paul’s statement there as a particular statement regarding celibacy being in any way a purer state. I’ve always read that as him saying that it is better if one can to devote one’s entire life to the service of the Lord (which necessary involves forgoing marriage, and hence celibacy). This, as I noted above, is what motivates our priests and nuns to pursue their valuable work.

            The celibacy seemed like the by-product of a life without marriage (so that it can focus entirely on doing the work of the Lord), rather than anything special in and of itself.

            • Very good point. I would argue that they are related though.

    • Dodger Dickens

      The overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit and the resultant Incarnation of Christ anticipated the overshadowing of the Apostles and the “incarnation” of the Church (where Mary was also in attendance). Mary, who symbolizes the Church, gives spiritual birth to new son and daughters every time the Holy Spirit overshadows the waters in the Church where the newly baptized are received. In other words, Mary chose the greater good — which is the spiritual fruitfulness that makes visible our Holy Church. Thus, her perpetual physical virginity is appropriate, as she was preserved from Original Sin and predestined to be “the sign”, as Mark points out.

    • [And how would Mary the person, rather than Mary the symbol, have come to this deliberate conclusion in her life?]
      How do priests or nuns?

      Let’s leave aside the possibility that she may have been a consecrated virgin to begin with or even that the marriage may have always been about social stability, and a conversation about sex after the fact may not have been that big a deal.

      I’m always fascinated by the mindset that finds this so hard to accept. This Marian doctrine, requires NO supernatural beliefs. Its something millions and millions have chosen to do before and after her time.

      Even if her choice were completely illogical, difficult to relate to, and completely out of the bounds on social norms (tho, it was none of these), how is it that crazy an idea to accept might have happened?

      People choose stranger things in their marriage every day. And if an authority I trusted told me a couple chose a completely, mundanely possible, though odd practice, I wouldn’t spend my life squinting with incredulity. I’d accept it and try to understand their perspective in choosing that.

      • Sue Korlan

        In this culture, the idea that a person can live without sex is an opposition to the prevailing culture and therefore can’t be believed.

        • Paperboy_73

          I have immense respect for priests and nuns, but they made a choice not to marry.

          My confusion is nothing to do with the choice to be celibate, and everything to do with making that choice and marrying nevertheless. I don’t understand what role celibacy has, given that state of affairs.

          As I note below, my understanding of Paul’s promotion of singleness is that a person who is unmarried can devote the entirety of their time, their passion and their love to the Lord. But someone in a marriage necessarily cannot do that to the same extent. I don’t interpret that statement as saying celibacy itself is particularly sacramental, but rather that a life devoted in its entirety to God is the preferable state, such as those of our priests and nuns.

          If you’re married anyway, then celibacy does not to me seem to serve a purpose beyond that.

          • “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. ”

            Paul here recognizes the spiritual benefits of it beyond simple married vs single life. His admonishment to return to marital duties after a time are to avoid temptation. It is understandable that Mary’s was a special case.

    • Alma Peregrina

      I’m no theologian, so I may be writing non-sense… but here are two cents:

      1) We don’t fully know how ancient cultures viewed sex and marriage. There may be things that shock us today and were viewed as normal back then.

      2) Mary was the spouse of the Holy Spirit. You can’t have sex outside your rightful marriage. St. Joseph was there to give Jesus a carnal father, to provide for Mary (women back in the day couldn’t earn their own bread satisfactorily, that was the problem with the widows) and not to give *too much* scandal to the rest of their society.

    • wineinthewater

      I think that the concept of consecration is very useful here. When we consecrate something, we set it apart. We remove it from its typical role and dedicate it to a special, holy role. It is not that there is something wrong with the typical role, but that there is something greater about the holy purpose. That is why it is a sacrilege to use consecrated objects for their typical use, because they have become something holy and set apart.

      So it is with Mary. As the new tabernacle, her womb was consecrated to bearing God. For her then to return to the typical would be to take something consecrated and to profane it, even though there is nothing bad about bearing normal human babies. Mary was consecrated, set apart for a holy purpose. With her fiat, that became her nature.

      • Paperboy_73

        Which is reasonable on a symbolic level, certainly. It’s a little alien to me, but I can certainly accept the premise.

        In terms of how this state of affairs came about though, I would like to ask a clarifying question. Are you saying that, once they had delivered Jesus, Mary and Joseph made the conscious and deliberate decision to consecrate Mary’s womb? I’m interested in the thought processes of the people involved, although I also find the symbolism curious.

        • wineinthewater

          I’m saying that her fiat, her consent to God’s plan consecrated her to that purpose and then Jesus was conceived in her. Joseph consented to marry a woman who had already been consecrated to another motherhood when he took her into his home as the angel advised.

          The Jewish notions of consecration were very strong. Once something was consecrated to a holy use, it could never be used for ordinary use again. In a way, Mary’s perpetual virginity tells us something about Jesus. Jesus was in fact God, and one way that we see that is that his mother had been consecrated to the holy purpose of bearing Him. If Mary had had other children, it would have been an implicit denial – within this worldview of consecration – of Jesus’ divinity. She would be just like any other mother, her womb like any other, not the mother of God, not the tabernacle of the Holy of Holies.

  • Re_Actor

    … as I have pointed out in the past, only a fool demands that something be infallible before being willing to consider it. … The more sensible approach to Magisterial teaching is to receive it with docility and try to listen to what the Pope is saying and how it reflects the historic teaching of the Church rather than pick over it looking for loopholes and avenues of escape.

    But isn’t this just because current teaching is amenable to your more or less liberal worldview? (That’s meant as an observation, not a sneer.) Teaching of the distant and not so distant past that conflicts with that worldview, you’ve dismissed as “old sin”. Those who hanker after it are reactionary kooks. OK, but what if Christmas comes for the reactionary kooks and a future pope publicly consigns Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae to the flames in St Peter’s Square while thundering anathemas against liberal democracy and interreligious dialogue? Will you still be preaching docility then?

    If that scenario strikes you as too preposterous to take seriously, what do you think would have been the correct Catholic response back when this “old sin” was new sin? Do you think those Catholics who administered the inquisitions were receiving Magisterial teaching with exemplary docility? After all, how were they supposed to know popes would be busy apologising on their behalf centuries later? If you say they were nevertheless morally culpable, that they should have known better and rejected the then current teaching — maybe look for loopholes — how can you argue against those who do likewise today on issues such as the death penalty? You may think they’re wrong but I don’t see how you can condemn them in principle for dissenting from current teaching.

    • Sue Korlan

      Actually, the Pope condemned Ferdinand and Isabella’s inquisition because it was aimed at Jews who had only submitted to baptism under threat if they didn’t. As far as the rest of the Church was concerned, they were still Jews. Ferdinand and Isabella told the Pope to come with an army if he intended to enforce it. Many of the conversos fled to the Papal States as a result.

      • Re_Actor

        Whatever the papal position may have been regarding the Spanish Inquisition, you would surely agree that there have been plenty of official papal pronouncements throughout history, representing recognisable currents of what was then mainstream Catholic teaching, that are inconceivable today and indeed have on occasion been explicitly repudiated by modern popes. I think it’s fair to say that Mark has shown himself to be profoundly grateful for this abandonment of certain past teachings and sees it as a positive development. I’m not slagging him off for holding that opinion; I just fail to see how it can be coherently justified by a neo-ultramontanist stance of default docility to whatever comes out of Rome.

        • wineinthewater

          ” you would surely agree that there have been plenty of official papal
          pronouncements throughout history, representing recognisable currents of
          what was then mainstream Catholic teaching, that are inconceivable
          today and indeed have on occasion been explicitly repudiated by modern
          popes”

          It might be useful for you to name them so that we have an idea of what you are getting at.

          But the general approach remains. To receive with docility does not mean to be passive or uncritical. It means to receive without a knee jerk reaction. It means to give the benefit of the doubt. It means to take it seriously. It means to accept it until and unless you come to a well-reasoned, well-considered, prayer-supported reason to express a difficulty or doubt. And then when you do reach that point, it means to seek better understanding, guidance and spiritual direction, recognizing that your understanding could be in error rather than the teaching.

          And in all of that, nor everything the pope teaches is infallible. So, if you do find an error, it means working to bring out the truth.

          This is the opposite of what we so often see, a knee-jerk reaction to a barely read and even less considered teaching because it seems like it is incompatible with a (usually political) worldview.

          • Re_Actor

            It might be useful for you to name them so that we have an idea of what you are getting at.

            How about this for starters:-

            This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws — in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.

            Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?

            The Church has always taken action to destroy the plague of bad books. This was true even in apostolic times for we read that the apostles themselves burned a large number of books. It may be enough to consult the laws of the fifth Council of the Lateran on this matter and the Constitution which Leo X published afterwards lest “that which has been discovered advantageous for the increase of the faith and the spread of useful arts be converted to the contrary use and work harm for the salvation of the faithful.” This also was of great concern to the fathers of Trent, who applied a remedy against this great evil by publishing that wholesome decree concerning the Index of books which contain false doctrine. “We must fight valiantly,” Clement XIII says in an encyclical letter about the banning of bad books, “as much as the matter itself demands and must exterminate the deadly poison of so many books; for never will the material for error be withdrawn, unless the criminal sources of depravity perish in flames.” Thus it is evident that this Holy See has always striven, throughout the ages, to condemn and to remove suspect and harmful books. The teaching of those who reject the censure of books as too heavy and onerous a burden causes immense harm to the Catholic people and to this See. They are even so depraved as to affirm that it is contrary to the principles of law, and they deny the Church the right to decree and to maintain it.

            – Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos, 1832.

            • wineinthewater

              Keep in mind that this encyclical was called “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” It is speaking of liberty of conscience in a very specific way, and a way that is probably quite different than what we think of today. Within the encyclical, liberty of conscience is linked intrinsically to religious indifferentism, the idea that one religion is as good as another. Gregory was addressing a specific manifestation of a call for liberty of conscience, one that was rooted in the notion that such liberty should exist because any belief system is just as good as any other.

              This is very different from what the Catholic Church has come to later teach about religious liberty, which is that the dignity of the human person demands that they must be able to choose their religion freely. Not because one religion is as good as any other, but because faith must be come to freely.

              The idea of banning books is tough for us to accept in our time and place. We have an almost absolute concept of the freedom of speech that is quite incompatible with this idea.

              But in this, too, the context is key. This is the driving idea behind that:

              “To provide legally that writers or speakers shall be free to promote what is not true or to utter words that declare that racial prejudice, or paederasty, or pornography, or adultery, or murder not to be sins, cannot be what God demands of any State.”

              and

              “Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?”

              I don’t think that you can deny that our nearly absolute freedom of speech has some very real downsides. Gregory was addressing the Catholic world where most of the nations were still Catholic nations. So, the idea of the state colluding to suppress works contrary to the truth of the faith is actually pretty reasonable. Even now, we see it as a legitimate use of state power to regulate the food and drugs that are available to the populace because the high priests of those ideologies have decided what is good for the population. Even today, we regulate expression, outlawing hate speech and other “poisonous” forms of speech or requiring people to act against their conscience. We’ve even seen efforts to criminalize climate change denial. This was little different, so should not seem too inconceivable to us today.

              However, the world was to soon change, and those Catholic nations would become pluralistic societies, so it no longer makes sense to look to the state to play a role in the marketplace of ideas.

              I think throughout the quote you give, there aren’t really any ideas that were truly repudiated later, nor anything that we could find absolutely inconceivable today.