The Virginal Espousals of Saint Joseph and Our Lady, Part I

Some weeks ago, a group of Protestant apologists landed on this site — and other Catholic sites, from what I gather — to attack the doctrine of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. They did this in the comment sections of various articles. They also impugned Our Lady’s continent marriage with Saint Joseph, which, they argued, would give a “bad example” to married couples regarding the obligation to render the marriage debt. In honor of both the Month of Saint Joseph and the coming Feast of the Annunciation (Saturday, March 25), I would like to explore and defend the virginal espousals of Saint Joseph and Our Lady.

The Biblical data are explicit that Mary was a virgin at the time of the Annunciation: “And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27). On that same occasion, when the angel proposes to Mary the plan of the Incarnation of the Son of God in Her womb, the Blessed Virgin asks a question which would make no sense had She not intended to remain a virgin: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” At this point, Saint Gabriel explains that the spousal overshadowing of the Holy Ghost will not violate Her virginity, and Mary consents to the plan with Her much celebrated fiat (“let it be done”).

At this point in Her relationship with Saint Joseph, Mary was already espoused; that is, they had undergone their first espousals. About a year after that, they would be solemnly espoused. The first espousals were much more than a mere “engagement,” but were a genuine espousal; the two were already wed. Yet, according to custom, they did not begin to cohabit until after the solemn espousals.

Given the content of this conversation, the prima facie evidence is that the Blessed Virgin simply had no intention to have a conventional marriage with Saint Joseph. Even if we factor in a full year between the Annunciation and the solemn espousals, it is contrary to reason that a young bride would ask how it is that she will become pregnant if she fully intends to enter into normal marital relations with her spouse. It would be a patently absurd question. (See this point developed at greater length here.) For this reason, various Fathers of the Church, e.g., Saints Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Germanus of Constantinople, saw in these words a sign that Mary had made a vow of chastity. (See here, here, and here.) Saint Thomas Aquinas agreed and would later develop the teaching of Saint Augustine on this point.

Regardless of whether of not Our Lady had made a “vow” in the current technical sense of that word — and I consider it obvious that She did consecrate her virginity to Godnumerous Fathers explicitly affirmed Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. The notable exceptions from the patristic era — Tertullian, Jovinian, and Helvidius — were all heretics.

As for the various pseudo-Biblical arguments that modern Protestants make against Mary’s perpetual virginity, they have been answered many times (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here), but I find this claim particularly preposterous in light of the following two points (of which the first is much more important than the second):

  1. The Greek Fathers like Saints Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Epiphanius, John of Damascus, and all the Fathers of the Second Council of Constantinople (who called Her Aeiparthenos — “ever virgin”) did not simply know Greek. It was their language, the very one in which they read and meditated upon the New Testament. Many of them were positively eloquent in it (one was “golden-mouthed”!), being trained in the philosophical and Biblical use of this great tongue. All of the aforementioned (and many others) affirmed Mary’s perpetual virginity. For a modern scholar to parse Greek texts in an effort to contradict these ancient Greek scholars whose whole world was Greek is the height of hubris. I said this to one of the Protestants who commented on our site, and he accused me of an ad hominem, but I believe he simply missed my point. I committed no ad hominem, whereas he executed a flawless ignorantio elenchi.
  2. The original Protestant “reformers” virtually all believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity (see here and here). This argument does not win the day, of course, but it has the advantage of exposing a certain internal inconsistency in our adversaries on the point.

Beyond the clear Biblical indication that the Blessed Virgin intended to remain a virgin, and beyond replies to the typical heretical objections to the dogma under consideration, there are deeper reasons for Mary’s perpetual virginity that should be appreciated.

First, objectively considered, virginity is superior to non-virginity. Evidently, there are saintly patriarchs and matrons, and the married state is blessed in the New Dispensation with a sacrament that is intended to sanctify the couple. So, it is not a question of “good” and “bad,” but, rather, of “good” and “better.”

Jesus speaks positively of some men being given to be “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” His Apostle, Saint Paul, elaborates while writing to the Corinthians concerning matrimonial matters. In the seventh chapter of his first Epistle to Corinth, he begins: “Now concerning the thing whereof you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (I Cor. 7:1). He recommends to them the state he has embraced, celibacy: “For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I” (1 Cor. 7:7-8). Then he gives us some reasons why virginity is better: “But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (v. 32-34). The Apostle makes it clear that marriage is not a sin (v. 28), but that virginity is better; in fact, he uses the very word “better” in this context: “So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better” (v. 38).

We see another Biblical portrayal of the superiority of virginity in Saint John’s Apocalypse: “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the noise of many waters, and as the voice of great thunder; and the voice which I heard, was as the voice of harpers, harping on their harps. And they sung as it were a new canticle, before the throne, and before the four living creatures, and the ancients; and no man could say the canticle, but those hundred forty-four thousand, who were purchased from the earth. These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were purchased from among men, the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (Apoc. 14:2-4).

This scriptural teaching was expounded upon by the Fathers, who praised monasticism to the skies. It was also fixed in the positive magisterial teaching of the Church at the Council of Trent: “If anyone sayeth, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema” (On Matrimony, Canon X).

Next, aside from its being intrinsically superior, in the case of Our Lady, Her consecrated virginity is typological of the Church, as Paul Senz beautifully argues:

Mary’s perpetual virginity is one of many of her attributes that make her a beautiful symbol of the Church, as the virgin bride of Christ and the fruitful mother of Christians. St. Ambrose wrote, “Fittingly is [Mary] espoused, but Virgin because she prefigures the Church which is undefiled yet wed. A Virgin conceived of the Spirit, a Virgin brings us forth without travail” (On Luke 2:6-7).

As the authors of “All About Mary” argue,

Following the example of Mary, the Church remains the virgin faithful to her spouse … For the Church is the Spouse of Christ, as is clear from the Pauline Letters (cf. Eph. 5:21-33; 2 Cor. 11:2), and from the title found in John: “bride of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9). If the Church as spouse “keeps the fidelity she has pledged to Christ,” this fidelity, even though in the Apostle’s teaching it has become an image of marriage (cf Eph. 5:23-33), also has value as a model of total self-giving to God in celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven,” in virginity consecrated to God (cf. Matt 19:11-12; 2 Cor. 11:2). Precisely such virginity, after the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, is the source of a special spiritual fruitfulness: it is the source of motherhood in the Holy Spirit (Mother of the Redeemer #43).

Another reason for Mary’s perpetual virginity can be found in eschatology, or “anagogy.” Here, again, is Paul Senz:

Mary’s perpetual virginity matters because its truth has implications that matter to all of us; namely, [it] points beyond her life to the world that is to come, a world in which there will be no more marriage and we will all be as Mary was. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” Jesus told the Sadducees (Matt. 22:30). Mary’s virginity is a prefigurement of heaven, the reward for those who say to God, with Mary, “Thy will be done.”

If anyone can be said, after Jesus, to live the heavenly life while yet on earth, it was Mary!

I will complete these thoughts in a second installment, focusing more on the great Saint Joseph’s half of the relationship, but I will anticipate that somewhat by answering a question that is frequently asked: If Mary was predestined by God to be a perpetual virgin, why would She have an earthly husband at all? Here, I need not be original: In his Book of Commentaries on Matthew, Saint Jerome asks and answers the question this way:

Why was the Lord conceived of an espoused virgin rather than of a free? First, for the sake of the genealogy of Mary, which we have obtained by that of Joseph. Secondly, because she was thus saved from being stoned by the Jews as an adulteress. Thirdly, that Himself and His mother might have a guardian on their journey into Egypt. To these, Ignatius, the martyr of Antioch, has added a fourth reason namely, that the birth might take place unknown to the devil, who would naturally suppose that Mary had conceived by Joseph.

To these four reasons, I can add four more: (1) to safeguard Jesus and Mary’s reputation (which is related to Saint Jerome’s first reason); (2) because the Davidic lineage of the Messias-King had to come from Saint Joseph, His legal father; (3) so that Saint Joseph could be an antetype to Joseph of the Old Testament, who was made “master of his house, and ruler of all his possession” (Ps. 104:21; the NT Joseph was to the Eternal Father what the OT Joseph was to Pharaoh); and (4) so that the Holy Family would fulfill another typology, that of the “holy family” of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (see this thought developed further here).

(To be continued…)