A question in relation to the Semper Virgo dogma has been niggling away in the back of my mind during our previous conversations on the topic – and I would like your responses on this.
I was listening to an episode of Catholic Answers the other day in which a caller asked Karl Keating whether a necessary component of the dogma (to which all Catholics must give assent) was the tradition of “ante partum, in partu and post partum” doctrine in the sense of Mary remaining “physically intact” in the birth of Jesus, ie. that her her hymen was not ruptured in the birth. Keating was not able to give a definitive answer on that one.
The idea of course relates to the ancient (and currently still widespread Middle Eastern) understanding of virginity as involving the rupture of the hymen, rather than simply the question of the act of sexual intercourse. Thus the Fathers saw the birth of Jesus as a miraculous event not only in terms of the virginal conception, but also strictly (in this physical sense) as a virginal birth. They taught that the birth was without pain (since pain in childbirth was a punishment for sin – Gen 3:16) and that it was possible for the body of the infant Jesus to pass through his mother’s hymen without breaking it in the same way that after his resurrection, his body miraculously passed through the locked doors of the upper room (John 20:19).
Up front, I have to admit that I have rather more difficulty with this way of teaching the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity than with the simple belief that she did not have sexual relations with her husband either before or after Jesus’ birth, and that hence she had no other children. To me this makes the best sense of both the Scriptures and the Church’s tradition. And in this sense, the perpetual virginity of Mary is a dogma which can be supposed to have a primarily historical rather than a theological basis (nb. I don’t believe that it can be theologically true unless it is also historically true), in that it was something that could have been known by the early Christian community.
On the other hand, the question about whether or not Mary experienced pain or the breaking of her hymen in giving birth to Jesus seems to me to be a conclusion primarily based on theological ideas (and, in respect to the hymen question, cultural ideas). I guess that, if Mary experienced no pain in giving birth to Jesus, this is something that could have been known by the early Christian community, but it boggles the mind how anyone could have known for certain one way or another whether her hymen was ruptured. It seems to me that this way of teaching the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is dangerous on two grounds: A) With regard to the pain of childbirth, it seems dangerously docetic. Mary DID experience pain in her life (eg. Luke 2:35 – even if this refers to a pain of the soul) and perhaps also death (according to one valid tradition regarding her final departure), which seems to me to show that it is not necessary to postulate a painless birth as a logical outcome of Mary’s own immaculate conception. B) With regard to Jesus passing through Mary’s hymen without rupturing it, this cannot be defended with reference to the attributes of Jesus’ body AFTER the Resurrection. Jesus’ post-Resurrection body was a glorified body and therefore quite different in attributes to his conception-till-burial body.
Anyway, these are my thoughts. I am keen to hear what other Catholic readers think of this. Our separated brethren and sistern may sit this one out – I am really interested in what Catholic doctrine on the matter is.