(Denzinger-Hünermann 533; Council of Toledo XI, 7 November 675), a new creation at the beginning of the new creation.
I have never been a great supporter of movies about the life of our Lord, mostly because they are made with very little regard to historical accuracy and dogmatic truthfulness. A new such enterprise is "The Nativity Story" due in the theatres from the 1st of December this year. Curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to watch the trailer. It was more than enough for me to be scandalised as a Catholic who believes in the perpetual virginity of our Lady before, during, and after childbirth (ante partum, in partu, post partum). This is a de fide definita dogmatic truth of the Catholic faith, which may not be questioned without temerity or rejected without falling into formal heresy.
This film, as also others, such as Zeffirelli's (unduly) celebrated "Jesus of Nazareth," portrays the sacred moment of Christ's birth by showing Our Lady covered with drops of sweat, screaming in pain as she delivers the Christ-child. This is a terrible insult not only to the Holy Virgin but also the blessed Fruit of her virginal womb; an insult grievous enough for any Catholic to recoil in horror and refuse to pay a single penny to see this ordeal.
We live in difficult times, and so one may not suppose without a gross amount of naiveté that such truths of the Catholic faith as the perpetual virginity of our Lady are perfectly clear in the minds of even churchgoing, committed Catholics. Hence I now endeavour to give a short explanation of the doctrine at hand, risking a bit of sketchiness in the result.
The gist of it is that our Lady was ever-Virgin, before, DURING, and after giving birth to Christ. The Lateran Council of 649 gave the following summary: "If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary is really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time, and without human seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned." (DH 503)
For further reference I include here a good number of Magisterial evidence. This is not for the faint-hearted, so you may skip this summary without losing comprehension.
ante partum, DH (91)185; (113)252;, novo ordine ... nova autem nativitate [(282)533]; (201)401, semper virgo; (202)401, veraciter autem ideo, ne in phantasmate aut aliquo modo non veram sumsisse carnem credatur ex virgine [(344)681]; (214)422, semper virgo, Dei Verbi duas esse nativitates, unam quidem ante saecula ex patre sine tempore incorporaliter, alteram vero in ultimis diebus; (255)502, semper virgo
in partu, “Conceptus quippe est de Spiritu Sancto intra uterum virginis matris, quae illum ita salva virginitate edidit, quemadmodum salva virginitate concepit...” Leo the Great “Quam laudabiliter”, 21 July 447; DH 291. (144)294 “nativitas est mirabilis”; Pope Hormisdas, Ep. “Inter ea quae”, DH 368; DH (993)1880
post partum DH (734)1400
Inseparable from the concept of Mary's ever inviolate virginity and the entirely miraculous nature of Christ's nativity is the fact that she did not experience the pangs of child-birth. Being the immaculate, all-holy daughter of God, she was exempt from this punishment of the first Eve. The painlessness of Christ's birth is first emphasised by Gregory of Nyssa: “Her pregnancy was without coition, her childbed undefiled, her travail free from pain... his birth alone was without labour, just as His formation was without union.” (In Cantica canticorum, serm. 13; PG 44:1053; also In Christi resurrectionem, orat. 1; PG 46:604) It is also emphasised by St. Ephraem (Explanatio Evangelii concordantis 2, 6), and Damascene: “for as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it.” (De fide orthodoxa, lib. 4, cap. 14)
Needless to say that this venerable doctrine was upheld universally, both in the Christian East and West, until the Reformation. Then slowly but surely its denial reared its ugly head even among so-called Catholic thinkers. Albert Mitterer argued that according to modern natural scientific knowledge, the purely physical side of virginity consists in the non-fulfilment of the sex act (sex-act virginity) and in the non-contact of the female egg by the male seed (seed-act virginity). Thus, the two traits given in tradition (absence of pains of childbirth and preservation of the hymen) do not belong to the essence of virginity and their lack implies a diminution of motherhood. Cf. Albert Mitterer, “Dogma und Biologie der heiligen Familie,” Vienna, 1952, pp. 98-130 and “Marias wahre Jungfraülichkeit und Mutterschaft in der Geburt” in Theologische-praktische Quartalschrift 108 (1960), pp. 188-93. Mitterer was followed by C. E. L. Henry, “A Doctor Considers the Birth of Jesus,” in Homiletic & Pastoral Review 54 (1953, pp. 219-233).
The same view seems to be advanced even by the “Venerable” Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 205; and Jean Galot, S.J. openly argued for Mary’s painful delivery and the rupture of her hymen. Cf. Maria, la donna nell’opera di salvezza (Roma : Universit? Gregoriana Editrice, 1984), p. 159. As I have already pointed out, this theory has no precedence in Catholic tradition, except for Jerome’s hesitation about Our Lady’s in partu virginity (De virginitate perpetua; PL 23:202), for which he was duly criticised even in his lifetime. It must be remembered that Jerome’s contemporaries (e.g. Augustine) were unconditionally in favour of the doctrine, and Jerome himself seemed to waver, as may be seen from Homilia in Joannem 1,1-14 (CCL 78:521), where he likened the virgin birth to the resurrected Lord’s passing through locked doors.
This non-physical interpretation of virginity at the moment of birth, however, can hardly be reconciled with the language of the Fathers. The Greek word aphthoros (Gregory of Nyssa, Orat. Catech. 23; PG 45:61B; Damascene, De fide orthodoxa 1,2; PG 94:792D), means untouched, unharmed, or inviolate, and as such, it is clearly suggestive of a physical kind of integrity; a concept the relevant Latin texts denote as incorruptibilitas and integritas.
Karl Rahner considers the physical integrity of the Virgin’s hymen in giving birth to her Son an idea “too mythical for modern believers.” Interestingly, he upholds the painlessness of Christ’s human nativity on the peculiar basis of the Virgin’s special psychological state and integrated experience of physical pain, but in the end it seems nothing more than his strange rendition and re-interpretation of the in partu virginity. (‘Virginitas in partu’ in Theological Investigations vol. 4 (trans. by Kevin Smyth, 1966), pp 134-162; and ‘Human aspects of the birth of Christ’ in Theological Investigations vol. 13 (trans. by David Bourke, 1975), pp. 189-194)
Very possibly, in response to the theories of people like A. Mitterer, the Holy Office in July 1960 drew up a decree but did not publish it officially. It was sent to a certain number of bishops and religious superiors as a monitum (and ignored by the Jesuit Galot and Rahner). Several journals did publish it, however, e.g. in Italian in Ephemerides Mariologicae 11, 1961, p. 138 and Marianum 23, 1961, p. 336, in French in La Vie des Comunautés Religieuses (Montreal) 18, 1960, no. 8. Laurentin, in “A Short Treatise on the Virgin Mary.” (Washington, N.J.: AMI Press, 1991) translated the decree to English on pp. 318-329:
“This supreme Congregation has often observed recently, and with deep concern, that theological works are being published in which the delicate question of Mary’s virginity in partu is treated with a deplorable crudeness of expression and, what is more serious, in flagrant contradiction to the doctrinal tradition of the Church and to the sense of respect the faithful have. Consequently, in its plenary session of Wednesday, the twentieth of this month [July 1960], it seemed necessary to the eminent Fathers of the Holy Office, by reason of their serious responsibility to watch over the sacred deposit of Catholic doctrine, to see to it that for the future the publication of such dissertations on this problem be prohibited.”
John Paul II in a General Audience of Jan 28, 1987 (no. 1) cited this text: “Mary was, therefore, a virgin before the birth of Jesus, and she remained a virgin in giving birth, and after the birth. This is the truth presented by the New Testament texts, and which was expressed both by the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553, which speaks of Mary as ‘ever virgin’, and also by the Lateran Council in 649, which teaches that ‘the mother of God...Mary...conceived [her Son] through the power of the Holy Spirit without human intervention, and in giving birth to him, her virginity remained uncorrupted, and even after the birth her virginity remained intact’.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church 510: Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).
One may make a feeble attempt to defend the makers of the film “The Nativity Story” by saying that the majority of them are Protestant. But what kind of an excuse – ask I – is that for blasphemy? It is well for us to be reminded that not even Luther dared to deny Mary’s perpetual virginity: “Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact” (WA 6:510), and “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin.” (WA 11:319-320)