Friday, August 23, 2019

Is the PVM a big deal?

Is the perpetual virginity of Mary (hereafter PVM) a big deal? A few considerations:

1. What's at stake

In itself, the PVM is not a deal-breaker for the Protestant faith, but it is a deal-breaker for the Catholic faith. If the PVM is true, that doesn't falsify the Protestant faith–but if the PVM is false, that falsifies the Catholic faith. It's dogma. If even one Catholic dogma is false, the Catholic faith is false. Protestants don't have the same stake in the issue that Catholics do. In principle, we can take it or leave it . 

2. Burden of proof

i) As a rule, we should avoid giving credence things without sufficient evidence. Gullibility is not a theological or epistemic virtue. As a practical matter, we can't avoid forming many beliefs without sufficient evidence, and that's frequently innocuous, but sometimes it's harmful. In addition, religious beliefs are more important than many mundane beliefs because there's more to gain if you're right and more to lose if you're wrong.  

ii) The onus is not on Protestants to provide evidence to the contrary, but on Catholics to provide sufficient evidence. It's not incumbent on me to disprove something for which there's no good evidence. If you tell me there's a genie in the bottle, the burden of proof is not on me to prove you wrong. 

iii) There's a standing presumption that Jewish couples had sexual relations. Is there compelling evidence to overcome that presumption?

3. Rationale

Ironically, the reasons Catholics give in support of the PVM may be reasons to reject it. Considered in isolation, it's not a big deal one way or the other, but the justification may make it a big deal. Consider Brant Pitre's contention that it was dangerous for Joseph to have marital relations with Mary because she was the ark of the covenant. For Joseph to have sexual relations with his wife was equivalent to unauthorized personnel venturing into the Holy of Holies. If you did that you got zapped. 

In effect, that makes Mary radioactive. A hazard zone. Did they requires separate beds? Was it safe to hold hands, or did Joseph have to wear latex gloves lest he combust through skin contact with his wife? 

4. Dogmatic authority

A Protestant might be open to the possibility of the PVM, but that's not nearly good enough from a Catholic standpoint. Rather, you are obligated to believe it. You must have a level of certitude disconnected from the level of the evidence. 

Ultimately, church authority is the makeweight. Believe it on the authority of the Roman magisterium. If, however, you reject the claims of Rome, that's a reason to reject the PVM. 

5. Exaggerated importance

Something can become important, not because it's intrinsically important, but because people make it more important than it is. Making something optional or inconsequential mandatory or all-important creates a problem where no problem existed. 

6. The cult of virginity

It lays the foundation for monasticism. The notion that normal family life can't be as holy as the single state. To be saintly you must be celibate.

7. Virginity in partu

According to Catholic dogma, as I understand it, either Jesus didn't pass through the birth canal, or even if he did, that didn't rupture the hymen. 

That treats the process of childbirth as impure or defiling. But human beings are essentially earthy. We have souls, but we're embodied agents. We are earthy by design. That's not a result of the Fall. 

To take a comparison, have you ever considered what it means that the Son remains Incarnate? It carries the presumption that even now, Jesus must eat, breathe, drink, itch, sneeze, sweat, sleep, excrete, trim his hair, fingernails, and toenails. Maybe he snores. He's not a heathen deity with elixir flowing through his veins. 


  1. Probably Jason can correct me, but I think a lot of the impetus for this dogma came from Jerome. He apparently had a very sexually licentious lifestyle before becoming a Christian and I think he had a bit of a personal stake in discussions about Mary's virginity. He seemed very touchy about the subject.

    1. Jerome had a significant influence, but I don't know much about the degree to which he did.

      For those who are interested in the Biblical evidence pertaining to the perpetual virginity of Mary, a good resource is Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001). On the patristic evidence, see here. On the notion that Jesus' brothers and sisters were children Joseph had in a prior marriage, see here.

  2. Yes, the monkish doctrine of celestial dignity of virginity was intimately tied to the supposed ever-virginity of Mary. That whole charade would have blown up if they had admitted that Mary had had children like a normal mother.

    This academic work describes the advance of celibacy-doctrine in the early centuries of the church:

    "Noteworthy is the manner in which Hunter demonstrates that by the end of the second century, largely as a result of the influence of writers like Irenaeus and Clement, Christian 'orthodoxy' was inseparable from a rejection of radical encratite ideals (encratite theology taught that sexuality originated as a result of the introduction of sin into the world and was never a part of God's original creation: the rejection of sex thus supported the quest to regain 'the pristine purity of paradise') and the acceptance of marriage. And yet Hunter traces the manner in which this second-century settlement would be largely overthrown by the third-century writers Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen, who introduced key features of encratite theology into their own treatments of marriage and sexuality, and who exerted significant influence on figures such as Ambrose and Jerome. "

  3. This quote comes from the New American Bible footnote on Mark 6:3, which is discussing the meaning of brother in the verse; "The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary's perpetual virginity." Scripture does not support the PVM, and Rome knows it.

  4. --In itself, the PVM is not a deal-breaker for the Protestant faith, but it is a deal-breaker for the Catholic faith. If the PVM is true, that doesn't falsify the Protestant faith--

    Yup, I honestly don't take issue with most of Mariology (no matter how absurd the claim or argument) - except 'Co-redemptrix' and 'Queen of Heaven', which I feel go just that much too far into blasphemous territory.