A question is raised as whether the traditional concept of the Virgin Birth of Our Savior merely a pious belief, a “theologoumenon” which one is free to doubt or deny without sinning against faith? Or is it a part of the deposit of faith, which all who claim to believe in Jesus are obliged to confess?
Definition of terms
First, some definitions of terms. Pious belief may connote a personal opinion in accord with faith and expressed devotionally, but not part of, or at least not explicitly proclaimed by the Magisterium of the Church as part of the deposit of faith, and so whose acceptance in faith is not binding on all believers. Among theologians this is known as a “theologoumenon”, a plausible opinion deduced from revealed truths, but itself not directly revealed and part of the deposit of faith.
But pious belief may also denote some truth which the sensus fidelium or faith of all Catholics over a long period of time unanimously and spontaneously perceives as part of the deposit of faith. Thus, before the solemn dogmatic definition of the Assumption of Our Lady in 1950 by Pope Pius XII that truth was one of those so recognized by the faithful. As such it was not permissible, despite objections of some scholars, to doubt it, but only to seek a fuller explicitation of its content. That spontaneous perception was a reliable key to the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church preceding a solemn definition of some truth. Some people think only solemn definitions by a Pope or ecumenical council are binding in faith. This is simply not true, as was made perfectly clear in the clarification of the concept of heresy introduced into the Code of Canon Law some years ago by Pope John Paul II.
State of the question
In the case of the Virgin Birth two points must be considered: that 1) it is in some way miraculous as a birth (and not merely indirectly as consequent on a miraculous conception, miraculous because without seed of man); and that 2) such a miraculous birth consists primarily in the absence of corporal lesion of the mother as the child passes from within to without the womb and in the absence of physical pain and afterbirth. The sensus fidelium practically from Pentecost expressly witnesses this. Even today, ordinary Catholic believers spontaneously react in shock when they hear doubt or denial of this concept of the mystery. Hence, at the very least, this perception of faith is a clear indication that we are dealing with something more than a theologoumenon, and that on each count there is something obliging in faith, even if such faith needs clarification and direction on the part of the Magisterium.
Intervention of the Magisterium
Nor was this direction long in coming. One of the mysteries of faith most frequently denied from the beginnings of the Church was the virginal motherhood of Mary in reference to Jesus: at conception, at childbirth, and thereafter. For the thoroughly consistent heretic this is a necessary target, because the virginal maternity is the great sign, the ultimate guarantee of the credibility of the mystery of Christ and the mystery of the Church. If doubt in the credibility of the virginal motherhood of Mary cannot be generated, then the heresy cannot be launched.
From the most ancient times of the Church, even during the lifetime of the Apostle, the attack of this mystery took two forms (each with many variations on the same theme): either 1) to deny the virginity by simply affirming the natural rather than miraculous character of Mary’s motherhood (either by saying that the story of a virginal conception was merely a cover-up for an illicit affair, or by saying that Mary had other children naturally after bearing Jesus); or 2) to deny the motherhood by reducing the mystery of virginal motherhood to a purely spiritual reality without any corporal implications, even those of natural birth (whence the early docetist idea of Mary not as Mother of God who really conceives God, but merely as a body through which Jesus passes in coming from heaven to earth).
First recorded explicit declarations about the Virgin Birth
Starting point of magisterial statements concerning the virgin-birth as distinct from the virginal conception of Jesus is generally conceded to be the end of the 4th century with the decrees of the Roman Synod of 393 condemning the view of the heretic Jovinian who held that the virginal state was not superior to the married, precisely because there was nothing miraculous in the birth of Jesus. It was simply natural, like that of any other woman. For these views Jovinian leaned in part on some of the more unfortunate exaggerations of Tertullian (beginning of the 3rd century), who to defend the reality of Mary’s motherhood denied the miraculous character of His birth (against the docetists and gnostics who denied the reality of Mary’s motherhood so as to deny the reality of Christ’s humanity and the possibility of creaturely cooperation in the work of salvation.
What these (erroneous) theologians deny is that the content of that mystery was initially what pious believers today claim it to be, viz., that one is not necessarily a heretic in claiming that Mary underwent pain, or that her body was opened during the birth of Jesus.
The decrees of this Roman Synod have been lost, but their content can be pieced together by a study of the works of Sts. Jerome and Ambrose, and by the decrees of the Synod of Capua of 392, which also condemned the position of Jovinian centered on a denial of the miraculous character of the birth (and not merely conception) of Jesus. The miracle of the Virgin Birth consisted concretely in the absence of physical lesion, viz., maintenance of the integrity or incorruptibility of the body of the Mother of God. This is why it is the great sign of the personal identity of the Child as Son of God in the proper sense, and why it is revelatory of His divine origin from the Father by eternal generation, leaving the divine essense undivided and so incorrupt. In effect, the Virgin Birth in signalling the divine identity of the Child and the incorruptibility of His flesh even in death, so heralding His Resurrection, also signals the mystery of the Trinity. Recently, in 1992, Pope John Paul II assisted in the celebration of the 1,600th anniversary of the Synod of Capua and commended its teaching on the integrity of Mary’s Body during child-birth as the perenniel belief of the Church.
A false premise which confuses the issue
Some modern theologians, including a number who claim to be orthodox,assert that traditional notions of the Virgin Birth are a best merely a non-binding pious belief, since the concept of perpetual virginity only emerges as a conclusion from various attempts to define each aspect of Mary’s virginity. At best, they claim, that perpetual virginity can only be shown historically to be a purely spiritual virginity, since the birth of Jesus has never explicitly and solemnly been defined as miraculous and so different from that of other men. These theologians do not deny that the Church has in some way held Mary to be a virgin. What they deny is that the content of that mystery was initially what pious believers today claim it to be, viz., that one is not necessarily a heretic in claiming that Mary underwent pain, or that her body was opened during the birth of Jesus.
This premise is historically false. The faith of Catholics, and the teaching of the Magisterium from day one of the Church (Pentecost) was predicated on a quite different premise, viz., that Mary is a perpetual virgin from her Immaculate Conception, and that therefore in each moment of her motherhood: at the conception of Jesus, in HIs birth, and thereafter in her spiritual motherhood of the rest of His brethren, that virginity remains intact. In giving birth, whether in the divine maternity or in the spiritual begetting of Christians, she does not lose that virginity which is corporal in nature and consists in the integrity of the body. Without that feature it cannot be the sign of the incorruptibility or purity which characterizes the divine nature in the eternal birth of the Son from the Father, and which also must characterize His birth into the world.
The development of doctrine in this case begins with an affirmation of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and proceeds toward a more and more precise definition of that virginity in key moment’s of Mary’s life, such as the Incarnation at Nazareth, the Birth of the Savior at Bethlehem, and the spiritual maternity of Mary in the Church. It is clear from such 4th century documentation as the so-called Creed of St. Epiphanius that “born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit” means born of the “ever-Virgin”. It is not the Magisterium in intervening which has innovated on the primitive tradition. It is rather the heretics who innovated and then tried to present their innovations as plausible and historically the more ancient view, because it is so like what we are used to. This is to abscure the entire point of the Nativity of Jesus and the Virgin-Birth. This is a mystery the like of which has never been seen nor will be seen again. First the differences must be noted; then we can go on to discuss similarities.
The reaction of the entire Church at the end of the 4th century to the outrageous, yet superficially plausible of the great sign or miracle which is the Virgin Birth, was swift. What that miracle really is, is summed up in one phase, subsequently repeated over and over by the Magisterium: whom Mary virginally conceived, she bore or begot incorruptibly: incorrutibiter genuit. Because of this absence of lesion, Mary is the unopened door of the Temple, though which only the Lord enters and exits without opening it, either at His conception or at His birth. Without this miraculous, corporal dimension of virginity of the Mother during birth, there is no more sign of divinity and salvation in this birth than in any other, and so we all remain in the fallen state of human nature: under the law, under the curse rather than children of adoption (cf. Gal 4: 4-7). The conception is a true conception and the birth is a true birth, indeed both are the most perfect. But precisely because each moment is miraculous, therefore it cannot be critiqued by the standards of biology, either ancient or modern. We must humbly admit, if we believe, that human science cannot disprove, but neither can it explain miracles, above all this miracle of miracles with which in material matters only those of the Resurrection and Eucharist can be compared.
With this in mind we can better appreciate the many reiterations of the essential teaching of the Roman Synod of 393 centered on the phrase: “incorruptibly” or “integrally” begot, that is without opening of the womb. It is found in the “Tome to Flavian” of Pope St. Leo the Great (449): “she gave birth to Him preserving her virginity, just as she preserved her virginity in conceiving Him without seed”. Each moment of the virginal gestation is miraculous in a distinct way. This document of Pope Leo is the basis for the teaching of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
How the final moment or birth is distinct, is expressly articulated in a decision of Pope Hormisdas (521): “a birth without corruption. Pope Pelagius in 557 elaborates on this: “preserving the integrity of her virginal maternity, so remaining a Virgin during child-birth, as she had during conception without seed.”
A solemn declaration binding on the entire Church
What is considered a solemn definition by a majority of theologians is the declaration of the Lateran Synod of 649 in Rome under Pope Martin I, who in signing the decrees (in both Greek and Latin) of this Roman Synod extended their obligatory force to the entire Church. Here is the text of canon 3, in which anyone who denies the truth asserted in the canon is condemned:
“If anyone does not confess that the holy and ever-Virgin and immaculate Mary did not conceive without seed by the power of the Holy Spirit the very Word of God, give birth to Him without corruption, thereafter that very virginity remaining ever integral, let him be anathema.”
The phrases: “without corruption” and “ever integral” concretely meant and still mean without the mother incurring corporal lesions from the child’s exiting the maternal womb, therefore without pain and afterbirth. Further, this definition of the Synod of 649 and the solemn proclamation of Pope St. Martin I, is but a paraphrase and authoritative explanation of the much earlier and popular: virgo concepit, virgo peperit, virgo post partum remansit. That is, this definition is an explanation of what perpetual virginity when combined with maternity means at conception, at child-birth and thereafter, and why, though true motherhood, miraculous motherhood, and so great sign of our salvation, on earth and in heaven (cf. Is. 7: 14).
This explanation is also found in the Constitution of Pope Pius IV (1555: during the Council of Trent) against the Unitarians. The denial of the virgin-birth in the sense defined has always been connected with unitarian or sabellian tendencies to deny the Trinity. In fact the Lateran Synod of 649, like the Council of Chalcedon (451) had to deal respectively with monothelitite and monophysite tendencies reducing the virginity of Mary to a merely spiritual chastity, and so opening the door to denials of the Trinity as well as the integral humanity of Christ.
In 1952, the Austrian theologian physician, Albert Mitterer, author of Dogma und Biologie der hl. Familie (Dogma and Biology of the Holy Family) reproposed some ancient notions long since condemned by the Church, viz., that at child-birth Mary’s virginity consisted merely in spiritual virginity, that it did not involve any distinctively miraculous elements (like integrity, painlessness), and that before the fall every human birth would have been virginal in this sense. This opinion triggered lively discussion, first in scholarly circles, and then in popular journals toward the end of the 1950’s, including its promotion as licit for Catholics. With this the Holy Office with the approval of Bl. Pope John XXIII intervened and in a monitum to Bishops and major superiors of religious orders forbade any such further promotion or public discussion.
From all this it should be clear, particularly taking account of the intervention of the Holy Office and of the 1992 address of Pope John Paul II that a Catholic cannot maintain doubts about the physical aspects of the Virgin Birth as traditionally and authoritatively defined, “without running afoul of defined doctrine”.