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

This is a continuation of an earlier Ad Rem on this same subject.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the overwhelming patristic evidence for belief in Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. Here is a partial list of Fathers. From the East: Clement of Alexandria (215), Origen (253), Saint Ephrem the Syrian (373), Saint Athanasius (373), Saint Basil the Great (379), Saint Gregory of Nyssa (395), Didymus the Blind (398), Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (403), Saint John Chrysostom (407), Saint Proclus of Constantinople (425), Saint Cyril of Alexandria (444), Saint Gennadius of Constantinople (471), all the Fathers of Constantinople II (the fifth Ecumenical Council in 553), Saint John Damascene (749); from the West: Saint Hippolytus of Rome (235), Saint Hilary of Poitiers (368), Saint Zeno of Verona (380), Pope Saint Siricius (392), Saint Ambrose (397), Saint Jerome (420), Saint Augustine (430), Leporius (after 430), Saint Peter Chrysologus (450), Saint Leo the Great (461), Saint Maximus of Turin (465), Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (533), all the Fathers of the Lateran Synod of 649, and Saint Ildephonsus of Toledo (667), who wrote a tract called, “on the perpetual virginity of Bl. Mary against three infidels.”

Of these, Saints Gregory of Nyssa (395), Ambrose (397), and Augustine (430) all held that Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity.

The Fathers on this list wrote in either Greek, Latin, or Syriac (Ephrem), and represent the three great ancient Patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, as well as the later Patriarchate of Constantinople. The notable exceptions to the universal belief in this Christian dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity were called out as heretics by their contemporaries and roundly condemned by the Church. The acceptance of this doctrine was so widespread at the time of the Protestant Revolt, that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, and Wesley all held it (as did many lesser known “reformers”), railing against those who questioned the doctrine, and approvingly citing the polemical writings of Saint Jerome on this point. It was only later that large segments of Protestants began to develop their own ideas contrary to the universal belief — traditions of man that void the word of God (Cf. Mark 7:13).

Given the universality of this belief, the burden of proof is on those who would deny the dogma. In every instance, the Biblical arguments they hold up as contrary evidence have been answered thoroughly by ancient authors well versed in Biblical Greek. Also, despite confident claims to the contrary, nowhere in the Bible is it said that “Mary had other children after Christ.” Nowhere.

In the context of this universal belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, the Church Fathers wrestled with two questions which were very much disputed. The first is whether Saint Joseph and Our Lady were truly husband and wife. They wrestled with this because, for many of the Fathers, the idea of virginal marriage seemed an oxymoron as the bond of matrimony and the use of matrimony were completely inseparable in their minds. From the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo, in the West, at least, the marriage of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin was accepted as a genuine marriage because it enjoyed all three of the “goods,” of matrimony, namely, “offspring, fidelity, and sacrament.” The offspring was Christ Our Lord; the fidelity was the total absence of adultery in the relationship; and the “sacrament” (by which Augustine meant indissolubility) was present by virtue of there being no divorce. Here is his celebrated text:

Thus every good of marriage was fulfilled in the parents of Christ: offspring, fidelity, and the sacrament. We recognize the offspring in Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself; the loyalty, in that no adultery occurred; and the sacrament because of no divorce. — De nuptiis et concupiscentia, Ch. 11 and 12; ML 44, 421: “Omne itaque nuptiarum bonum impletum est in illis parentibus Christi, proles, fides, sacramentum. Prolem, cognoscimus ipsum Dominum Jesum; fidem, quia nullum adulterium; sacramentum, quia nullum divortium.

At a later date, canonists and theologians reignited this dispute. In his Decretal published about 1140, the esteemed canonist of Bologna, Gratian, took the view of many of the Fathers (especially those of the East) which held that a marriage not consummated by sexual intercourse was no marriage. He therefore concluded that Joseph and Mary were not truly husband and wife. Against this opinion stood the view of the influential Saxon-French theologian, Hugh of St. Victor (1141), who argued that the consent that each had made to the contract of matrimony was sufficient for their being truly married, and this is abundantly clear from Holy Scripture, which explicitly refers to Joseph and Mary as husband and wife. Weighing in on Saint Augustine’s and Hugh’s side was the estimable theologian, Peter Lombard, whose highly influential Book of Sentences was published abound 1150. This work became the textbook in scholastic theology for centuries to come and would be studied and commented upon by subsequent theologians (e.g., Saint Thomas Aquinas) as part of their pursuit of advanced degrees. After Roland Bandinellus, a theologian from Bologna, was elected to be Pope Alexander III in 1159, he decided certain marriage cases using the criteria of Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard, thereby discrediting Gratian’s view. From this point on, the canonists sided with the theologians, and the opinion of Augustine et alia prevailed, being enshrined in Church law. Saint Thomas Aquinas lent it the great weight as well as the further development of his powerful intellect. (One thing that this sometimes hot medieval debate bequeathed to subsequent generations of Catholics is the distinction ratum sed non consummatum, which it is beyond the scope of these lines to discuss further.)

Returning now to the Fathers, there was another subject of disagreement among them that is relevant to our issue. Some had argued, based upon the authority of certain apocryphal books, including the Protoevangelium of James (written around 150), that Saint Joseph was an aged widower when espoused to Our Lady. To these Fathers, the “brethren of Jesus” were Saint Joseph’s children by this previous marriage. Saint Jerome and others would argue against this view (the often acerbic Jerome ridiculed these apocryphal books as repositories of ridiculous fables). To Saint Jerome and other Fathers, these “brethren” were, rather, near kinsman of Our Lord, cousins. While the opinion of Jerome was more common in the West, where the influence of the apocryphal books was less strong than in the East, there were Eastern Church Fathers — including Hegesippus (180), Saint John Chrysostom (407), and Theodoret (457) — who believed that the “brethren of the Lord” were not Joseph’s sons by another marriage, but near relatives of Jesus.

Still, the dominant opinion current in Eastern Orthodox circles seems to be that these “brethren” were Saint Joseph’s children by a former wife. It also appears from my readings that some of the more polemical Orthodox reject the genuineness of Saint Joseph’s marriage to Mary, and for this reason, they oppose the Catholic devotion to the Holy Family (though, in justice, I should add that there remains a strong devotion to “Joseph the Betrothed” in their liturgy, and, of course, a great devotion to the Mother of God and to Jesus Christ, true God and true Man).

These two points of dispute — the genuineness or not of Mary and Joseph’s marriage and the virginal or previously married status of Saint Joseph — rose up among men who in no way questioned Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. In fact, the disputes arose primarily as a result of different efforts, opposing differing heresies, to safeguard that very doctrine.

If all this sounds like too much inside Catholic baseball in what is essentially an apologetical article, there is something I am building up to: There is a sensus catholicus surrounding the sacrosanct person of Our Lady that many outside the Church simply do not understand. It is the conviction, common in the East and West, that the Virgin Mary is such a holy vessel that She could not be touched in a venereal way. She is the Ark of the New Covenant and the Temple of the Holy Ghost. Closely added to this is the idea that Saint Joseph, “being a just man” (Matt. 1:19), would not deem it appropriate to subject Her to the normal use of matrimony. As Saint Ambrose of Milan (397) tells us:

But Mary did not fail, the mistress of virginity did not fail; nor was it possible that she who had borne God, should be regarded as bearing a man. And Joseph, the just man, assuredly did not so completely lose his mind as to seek carnal intercourse with the mother of God. (De Inst. Virg., VI, 44; emphasis mine)

To the natural mind, this is very challenging indeed, and not only in our particularly hypersexualized and aberrosexualized culture. For true Christians, the Blessed Virgin was sanctified by the presence of Our Lord and became thereby a sacred vessel, something not to be given over to profane use. This is typified by a mysterious vision of Ezechiel the prophet:

And he brought me back to the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary, which looked towards the east: and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut (Ezechiel [Ezeckiel] 44:1-2).

Saint Thomas Aquinas cites Saint Augustine’s Marian interpretation of this passage:

Expounding these words, Augustine says in a sermon (De Annunt. Dom. iii): “What means this closed gate in the House of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that ‘no man shall pass through it,’ save that Joseph shall not know her [that is, carnally]? And what is this — ‘The Lord alone enters in and goeth out by it’ — except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of angels shall be born of her? And what means this — ‘it shall be shut for evermore’ — but that Mary is a virgin before His Birth, a virgin in His Birth, and a virgin after His Birth?”

Saints Jerome and Ambrose also saw the Blessed Virgin’s perpetual virginity typified in this vision:

Some quite emphatically understand this closed gate through which only the Lord God of Israel passes … as the Virgin Mary, who remains a Virgin before and after childbirth. In fact, she remains always a Virgin, in the moment in which the Angel speaks with her and when the Son of God is born. —Saint Jerome (Commentarium in Evangelium Lucae, PL 25, 430.)

Only Christ opened the closed doors of the virginal womb, which continued to remain closed, however. This is the closed eastern gate, through which only the high priest may enter and exit and which nevertheless is always closed. —Saint Jerome (Dialogus contra Pelagianos 2, 4)

Who is this gate (Ezekiel 44:1-4), if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity. —Saint Ambrose (The Consecration of a Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 8:52)

She is closed because she is a virgin; she is a gate, because Christ has entered through her…. This gate faces east, because she has given birth to him who rises, the sun of justice…. Mary is the good gate that was closed and was not opened. Christ passed through it, but did not open it. —Saint Ambrose (De Institutione Virginis, 8, 57. PL 16, 334)

But these Fathers are not alone. The aforementioned Saints Proclus of Constantinople, Hilary of Poitiers, Peter Chrysologus, and Gregory the Great also held this view of Ezechiel 44:1-2. Further, among Protestant exegetes, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), and John Mayer (1583-1664) all advanced the same Marian interpretation of the passage.

In More Reasons for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, Tim Staples plausibly argues, based upon Old-Testament marital laws, that Saint Joseph was obliged to recognize that Mary, though his wife and under his care, belonged uniquely to the Holy Ghost, by whom She had conceived the Child. At greater length and citing numerous rabbinical authorities and Jewish traditions, Br. Anthony Opisso, a physician, scriptural and rabbinical scholar, and hermit, argues the same. Br. Anthony’s witness has the value of laying something of an Old-Testament foundation to the sensus catholicus concerning Mary’s consecration to God as the Spouse of the Holy Ghost.

Father Joseph Pohle summarizes Saint Thomas Aquinas’ reasons for Mary’s perpetual virginity; note how connected his second, third, and fourth reason are to the sensus catholicus I mentioned:

St. Thomas enumerates four principal reasons why it was morally necessary that the Blessed Virgin Mary should preserve perpetual virginity. These reasons are: (1) The unique character of Christ as the Only-begotten Son of God [and therefore the fittingness that He should be the only Child of Mary]; (2) The honor and dignity of the Holy Ghost, who overshadowed her virginal womb; (3) The excellency of the title Deipara, and (4) The honor and chivalry of St. Joseph, who was commissioned to be the protector and guardian of his chaste spouse. (Mariology, pg. 103)

There is another reason that I brought up what I earlier called “inside Catholic baseball” regarding the patristic and medieval disputes concerning matrimony: it shows the possibility — however rare in practice — that virginal or continent marriages can exist, such as those of Saint Pulcheria with Marcian, Saint Cunegunda with Emperor Henry, Saint Edward the Confessor with his spouse, Edith. In these cases, affairs of state virtually demanded a marriage, but in each instance one of the couple had previously vowed celibate chastity. Saint Pulcheria’s competence as Empress in her own right shows she was no fool. Her lending the prestige and power of her throne to not one but two Ecumenical Councils (Ephesus and Chalcedon) shows her to have been a most Christian Empress. By mutual consent, the strong and capable General Marcian’s marriage to Pulcheria was celibate. Yet their fruitfulness in good works, along with that of the others just mentioned, is still justly celebrated by the Church.

I surmise that there will be Protestant objectors to this piece, as there were with the last one I posted on this subject. They will again claim that somehow it dishonors Mary or Joseph that their marriage was not “open to life.” But the weight of Christian centuries argues against this. It would have been dishonorable for the sacred vessel of the Most Holy Virgin to have been touched in a carnal way by man. I would rather stand with the entire Church Catholic than with modern sectaries, the founders of whose sects mostly agreed with me anyway. As for the charge of Mary and Joseph not being “open to life” when the unique Offspring born of that marriage was Life itself, I am tempted to think that the most appropriate response is scorn and ridicule, yet I hold out hope that even these polemicists may have a conversion of heart and see that in parenting Jesus, who is the “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:16), in whom we all become children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), Mary and Joseph have numerous spiritual offspring — which is why we Christians, with Christ Jesus, call them respectively Mother and Father.