Virginitas vs Maternitas in Partu

Anthony Zimmerman
A Response to Msgr. Calkins
Reproduced with Permission

Published in The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Summer, 2004. Mary's virginity was not compromised by giving birth to Jesus in the natural manner. Birthing is an essential part of her motherhood, a truth that has not been addressed by proponents of a miraculous birth of Jesus.

Msgr. Arthur Barton Calkins provides a respectful defense of Virginitas in Partu in the Spring 2004 issue of the FCS Quarterly. We owe him a debt of gratitude. If I now argue "sed contra," it is to defend Mary's motherhood. For if she did not "give birth" to Jesus in a natural manner, then some of her glory as our Theotokos fades.

If her birth canal remained virginal, then Mary did not "give" Jesus to us. Then it was God who took Jesus from Mary miraculously and laid the Child before her. When Mary saw the Child, she would then take Him to her breast and later lay Him into the manger. In this scenario, Mary would be inactive in the birthing process. She would be a passive vas instrumentalis, not an active Theotokos. We must weigh the merits of integral motherhood against those of a miraculous birth.

St. Luke employs verbs that indicative an active giving of birth, not passive instrumentality:

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver (ut pareret, tou tekein) her child. And she gave birth to (et peperit, kai eteken) her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:6-7).

Luke presents Mary as active in giving birth as well as in wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes.

The Church honors Mary with the lovely Antiphon: "Salve sancta Parens, enixa puerpera Regem." The words Parens and puerpera envision active motherhood.

The Council of Ephesus, in the year 431, triumphantly designated Mary as the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. The name indicates that she bore Jesus actively, not that God took Jesus from her. The Acts of the Council of Ephesus, Session 1, contain a letter of Cyril to Nestorious, with this passage about Mary's motherhood:

This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Volume XIV, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997).

Virginity vs Motherhood

When the Word was made Flesh in Mary, her biological features of virginity inevitably gave way and disappeared when new biological indications of motherhood displaced them. In no way whatsoever did the bodily features of motherhood violate Mary's vow of virginity. With the pregnancy, her uterus expanded to make room for Jesus. The uterine mucosa increased in thickness and vascularization to allow osmotic exchanges between mother and Child. Her mammory glands also developed and her breasts became those of a mother. At birth the placenta would also be extruded (or miraculously pass through the walls of her body) and would need to be severed from the Infant. Even after involution was completed the marks of historical motherhood would remain in Mary's body. Saints tell us that she shows them to Jesus occasionally when she makes a petition with special motherly insistence.

The beautiful testimony of Ambrose cited by Msgr. Calkins about Mary's "incorruption" notwithstanding, Mary's body lost the features of virginity, while her vow remained intact. The loss of the virginal seal was a continuation and term of the other bodily changes from those of a virgin to those of a mother. It was not a special novelty.

The author cites Thomas who states that "integrity of the bodily organ is accidental to virginity" (ST 2,2,153). But he then modifies that statement of Thomas with another, namely that bodily integrity belongs to the perfection of virginity (Q Q 6,10, prol). The author then follows with a rhetorical question: "Could we expect that God would do less for His Virgin Mother?" To which we answer: "God preserved her virginal consecration fully intact when He transformed her into a mother."

Witness of the Fathers

The list of Fathers of the Church who support Virginitas in Partu offered by the author is ample and impressive. The fourth and fifth centuries were the golden age of the Fathers, and when such greats as Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose testify to their belief in virginitas in partu, we have reason to ponder their belief with due respect.

Msgr. Calkins then adds that "The preaching and teaching was not a mere matter of pious fantasizing, but rather it was a careful 'handing on' of what had been received.'" For this latter assertion he provides no data. Respectfully, might I ask the Monsignor to provide such data, if data exists. He lists no Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin, Irenaeus, Hermas, Tatian, Clement of Alexander, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Lactantius, Apostolic Constitution, Origen.

The author then relates that the matter "was dealt with" during the Pontificate of Pope St. Siricius at the Council of Capua in 392." However, the subject dealt with there was the virginity of Mary post-partum, that she bore no more children after Jesus was born. Nothing explicit was proclaimed there about a miraculous birth of Jesus.

Msgr. Calkins cites a passage from a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great. In that passage, however, Pope Leo mentions that her conception came about "not by intercourse with man." That appears to be the focus of Leo's teaching. Her chastity underlies her perpetual virginity. There is no explicit mention of a miraculous birth:

The origin is different but the nature like: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bare, and a Virgin she remained...

He came that He might cure every weakness of our corruptness and all the sores of our defiled souls: for which reason it behoved Him to be born by a new order, who brought to men's bodies the new gift of unsullied purity. For the uncorrupt nature of Him that was born had to guard the primal virginity of the Mother, and the infused power of the Divine Spirit had to preserve in spotlessness and holiness that sanctuary which He had chosen for Himself: that Spirit (I say) who had determined to raise the fallen, to restore the broken, and by overcoming the allurements of the flesh to bestow on us in abundant measure the power of chastity: in order that the virginity which in others cannot be retained in child-bearing, might be attained by them at their second birth.

In another passage, however, not cited by Msgr. Calkins, Pope Leo mentions Mary's miraculous conception and her giving birth in parallel. The passage occurs in an authoritative teaching document, the Dogmatic Constitution against Flavian: "quae illum ita salva virginitate edidit, quemadmodum salva virginitate concepit; who brought Him forth with virginity intact, as she conceived Him without loss of virginity." The passage is not a data opera teaching and says nothing about biological details concerned with virginity when giving birth, but appears to reflect a common assumption at that time (A.D.449) that Christ issued forth miraculously. Even so, the parallel may refer to her perpetual state of virginity rather than to biological events of conception and birth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Mary preserved her virginity even in the act of giving birth:

499 The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.<154> In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it."<155> And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin."<156>
154. Cf. DS 291; 294; 427; 442; 503; 571; 1880.
155. LG 57. 156. Cf. LG 52.

The normative Latin original: "etiam in partu Filii Dei" is embellished in the English translation to read: "even in the act of giving birth." The translation is an obvious specification of a meaning that may or may not be in the original. The Latin "etiam" however, singles out the fact of virginal integrity when giving birth. That appears to suggest a miraculous birth while avoiding an explicit teaching.

An examination of the passages annotated by paragraph 499 indicates a belief illustrated in the documents that Mary's virginity was preserved when giving birth. This can be be interpreted as being identical with the universal teaching about Mary's perpetual virginity. The documents uniformly fall short of teaching explicitly that the birth was miraculous. However, if one is already convinced that the birth was miraculous, then the documents can firm up that belief.


From these references we can conclude that a miraculous birth is a common assumption that dates back to at least the latter part of the fourth century. In the current Catechism, the Church gives voice to this common assumption, but does not teach explicitly any biological details of what this might imply.

Neither the Fathers nor the Catechism indicate an awareness of the extent to which a miraculous birth might derogate from the significance of the maternity of Mary.

The data presented by Msgr. Calkins fails to show that a belief in the miraculous birth can be traced back to an Apostolic Tradition. A gap of three hundred years exists between the death of the last apostle and a documented belief in a miraculous birth. If the belief is an article of the faith, it must be sought in implicit teachings, if it is not passed on during this gap of time by an explicit Tradition. A teaching that started only in the fourth century does not ordinarily qualify as a part of the Apostolic Tradition.

The teaching that Mary remains a virgin at conception, at the birth of Jesus, and after His birth, is a doctrine of the Church that is not essentially affected by biological factors of pregnancy and giving birth. The core of this teaching is Mary's response to Gabriel: "How can this be, since I know not man?"

The honor of Theotokos belongs to Mary eminently because she brought Jesus forth into the world. The Gospel according to Saint Luke provides no indication that the birth was miraculous. An active participation by Mary in giving birth belongs naturally to the integrity of motherhood, and perhaps even to its essence.

To my knowledge, neither the Fathers, nor the Magisterium, nor Msgr. Calkins has weighed the negative effects that a miraculous birth might have upon Mary's motherhood. Until that has been done, I believe that a doctrine about a miraculous birth of Jesus remains tentative.

I personally believe that the concept of Theotokos contains an implicit belief that Mary really gave birth to Jesus as mothers do this naturally. For unless Mary participated in active birthing, she could not "give" Jesus to us and to the world. It implies that our belief in her motherhood negates belief in a miraculous birth.

The actual experience of Mary giving birth, and of Jesus being born of her, perfects the bonding between mother and child. The very vivid experience of giving birth to this child imprints upon the mother the powerful instinct to recognize this as her child, to therefore love that child, to feel bound to nurture and educate the child - all this belongs profoundly to motherhood.

For Jesus, too, being brought into the world by active participation of His mother has significance. A baby born of its mother instinctively takes it for granted that it has a mother who will respond to his ever need. A natural bonding of a baby to its mother occurs by the very reason of being born of her.

Mary might have missed very much of what belongs to motherhood, if God had miraculously taken the Child from her and laid Him before her to now take care of Him. And Jesus would have missed the experience of proceeding forth from His mother, and the overwhelming feeling of being her Child.

After giving birth a mother tingles from head to foot in a tsunami of love, as this mother knows from experience:

The greatest joy and fulfillment of a woman is precisely in having this child -- this little one, this miracle of life. Holding her newborn baby is such a stirring experience for a woman that words can hardly express it. Here is this little one, so perfect, so close, so loving -- and he is totally dependent on you. There is just nothing in the world that can be more rewarding to a woman -- nothing! Not fame, not ability, not money, not acclaim. This is it! She is happy; she is fulfilled (Erica John, mother of nine, "Motherhood is Golden," address given in Tokyo, Morning Star School, 1981, reprinted from Natural Family Planning, Nature's Way -- God's Way, De Rance, Milwaukee, 1981).

If Mary had not given birth to Jesus as mothers do naturally, her life would be considerably impoverished. A similar impoverishment would effect Jesus. As a result, the angels and saints would lose one of the supreme delights of heavenly contemplation. I hope, then, that Mary is truly the mother of Jesus by having given birth to Him. That makes her to be our mother also, who are brothers and sisters of her Son Jesus. Benedicta tu in mulieribus.