UPDATE: Sorry that the comments were off. Don’t know what caused this. Fire away!
Thanks for everyone who contributed to our lively discussion on the traditional Catholic doctrine of Mary’s virginity “in partu”, ie. the teaching that (as the Second Vatican Council put it rather tenderly) the firstborn Son of Mary “did not diminish his Mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (Lumen gentium, n. 57).
In my initial comment, I put it rather more bluntly. The “virgo in partu” doctrine requires us to believe – as a matter of historical fact – that Jesus’ birth was miraculous not only in the fact that Mary experienced no pain as she gave birth, but that furthermore Jesus passed through her vagina in such a way that her hymen was not broken.
Josh was, understandably, scandalised by such blunt language, even though he valiantly defended the “virgo in partu” doctrine itself by producing numerous scriptural, patristic, scholastic and magisterial testimonies to demonstrate the truth of the doctrine.
Stephen and Tony were also scandalised by the discussion. They agreed with my initial sense that the doctrine could lend itself to a docetic interpretation, and that furthermore it was in danger of confusing the pre- and post-resurrection attributes of the body of Christ, but above all they were scandalised by the fact that this was a discussion that was entirely conducted (both in Christian tradition and on this ‘ere blog) by men. They too thought the discussion utterly distasteful.
Following these discussions, this is my current thinking:
1) The doctrine that Mary remained a virgin “ante partum, in partu et post partum” is simply an exposition of the phrase in the Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary”. All orthodox Christians affirm the virginal conception of Jesus. While not quite in the same category as the bodily resurrection of Jesus (the Scriptures are obviously more concerned with the latter than the former), it is way up there as one of the classic “fundamentals” of Christian dogma. Catholics and Orthodox and many other Tradition-minded Christians such as some Lutherans and Anglicans also affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary in the sense that she had no other children after Jesus, leading to the conclusion that she had no sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth either. That takes care of the “ante partum” and the “post partum”. The latter is controversial only for some Protestants.
2) But the doctrine that Mary was a virgin “in partu” points to something quite strange that hasn’t been properly reflected upon. For the ancient and medieval Christians, this doctrine appears to have been as universal and as certain as the doctrines of her “ante-” and “post-partum” virginity. But for modern Westerners, for whom the definition of virginity is “not having had sex”, the doctrine of Mary’s virginity “in partu” makes no sense. Using the modern Western definition of virginity, the doctrine of “virgo in partu” seems to say that that Mary not only did not have sex either before or after Jesus’ birth, but she didn’t have sex while giving birth. This is preposterous, of course, and leads us to conclude that the ancients had an entirely different understanding of what virginity meant, and hence what it meant to call Mary a “virgin”.
3) This difference in meaning is referred to by euphemisms in the Church’s tradition, usually along the lines of saying that Jesus’ birth was miraculous (nb. there is agreement on this: since the infant Jesus’ body did not have the same attributes that the body of the risen Jesus had, it must have been a miracle) in that it took place while “preserving his mother’s virginity intact” or “without violating his mother’s virginal integrity”. “Intact” and “integrity” are euphemisms for an unbroken hymen.
4) This seems to us today to be an utterly scandalous and shameful discussion only because we do not live in the same sort of “honour/shame” culture that Jesus and Mary and most Christians and Jews practically up till the last century or so lived in (nb. Muslims still mainly live in just the same “honour/shame” culture that existed in 1st Century Palestine). In the “honour/shame” culture of the first century, the very discussion we have been having – and which has seemed to be a matter of shame to proponents of both sides of the argument – was in fact a matter of honour for both families and prospective brides. Sure, they used euphemisms such as “intact” and “inviolate”, but what they took great pride in was being able to present their young daughter as a “virgin” to her prospective husband precisely in the sense that her hymen was intact. Conceivably, even the girl in question could take pride in this. Conversely, if an examination proved it to be otherwise (and such examinations did take place – I can remember that it was said that when Diana Spencer was engaged to Prince Charles, she had to undergo a medical examination to “verify her virginity”. This was in our own lifetime!), conceivably both the girl and her family would be shamed. In this society, virginity was not about something you had done or not done, but about what you were – virginity was a physical state.
5) Mary’s early Christian family (the Church!) was convinced that the most exalted daughter of Israel was completely without shame, completely honourable, and thus physically-virginally “intact” not only before Jesus’ birth, but even (and this is precisely the force of the “in partu”) during his passage out of her womb (which required a true miracle) and also ever after (which required another kind of miracle on Joseph’s part!). So they did not find any shame in discussing this matter, even if they used euphemisms for the blunt fact that they were talking about whether or not Mary’s hymen had been ruptured.
6) Now, today, this all seems quite preposterous to us. With the change in the definition of virginity, the doctrines of “ante-” and “post-partum” still make sense (even if they are contended by some), but the “in partu” doctrine seems wildly out of place. Nevertheless, because it is a part of the Church’s Tradition, the Church is sticking to it like glue – as both the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II make clear. They don’t make a big point of it, but it is there, and cannot be ignored.
7) So the question is: what do we do with it today? Do we try to get back to an earlier cultural understanding in which honour was taken in what we today would find shameful? Do we have to rethink our definitions? How do we do justice to our original concern not to appear docetic in our teaching of the Incarnation? What, in short, is the authentic heart of the doctrine that Mary the Mother of God was integrally a virgin “ante partum”, “post partum”, but also “in partu”?