Article 47 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Father John G. Hillier
It is most fitting that we reflect on the Blessed Virgin Mary as celebrate her birthday today.
I especially love this section of the Catechism because this was the one I was privileged to review in its unedited French form before it was made available to the English speaking world. Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) arranged for various chapters in the first draft of the “new Catechism” to be translated and tweaked by groups of theologians from around the world. I was part of the team led by New York Cardinal John O’Connor charged with studying this section of the Catechism on Mary, the Mother of God. We spent hundreds of hours working to prepare these sets of paragraphs that would eventually be available to all Catholics.
The Catechism begins this section on Mary by inviting us to see her through the eyes of Saint Luke. This third book of the New Testament is often referred to as Mary’s Gospel since it is this gospel that provides us with the most information about our Blessed Mother.
Early in this gospel we hear about Mary’s divine motherhood during her exchange with her cousin, Elizabeth. Although Mary is often called “the mother of Jesus,” she is referred here by her cousin as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). This is no small matter to state that Jesus is God “the Father’s eternal Son” (ccc 495) and Mary is “mother of the Lord.” It is because of Elizabeth’s comment to Mary that the Church can confidently confess that “Mary is truly Mother of God (or) ‘Theotokos’” (ccc 495).
The earliest accounts of the Church affirm that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary solely by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism summaries this truth by quoting the words of the Lateran Council in the year 649. This was technically not a Church “council” but a Church “synod” held in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Reflecting on the Word of God present in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, this synod stated that our Savior was conceived “by the Holy Spirit without human seed” (ccc 496).
The matter of the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary is difficult for many to accept as it was in the early days of Christianity. Saint Justin Martyr and Origen, to mention two early 2nd century sources, document the lively opposition, mockery and incomprehension of non-believers, “Jews and pagans alike” (ccc 498), in accepting this article of faith. According to the Catechism, the accounts of Mary’s virginity in the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, understand “the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility” (ccc 497). The famous dream of Saint Joseph reported the angel telling him: “That which is conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). The Church has always understood this passage as the fulfillment of the divine promise given in the Old Testament: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14). Then there is the matter of Mary’s perpetual virginity following the birth of Jesus. Even those who accepted the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary did not necessarily accept her perpetual virginity.
The Catechism, using excerpts from Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is quick to assert that Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (Lumen Gentium, 57). As such, “the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the Ever-virgin” or Perpetual Virgin which we hear invoked at every Mass in the Eucharistic Prayer (ccc 449).
Leveled against this doctrine are countless arguments raised by Evangelical Protestants and others who are quick to assert that the Bible mentions other “brothers and sisters of Jesus” in various gospel passages. Therefore, they assert that Mary’s perpetual virginity is a Catholic myth. The fact remains, however, that “the Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary” (ccc 500). Why? Because James and Joseph, “the brothers of Jesus”, as mentioned in passages such as the Gospel of Mark 6:3 and the Gospel of Matthew 13:55-56 are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom Saint Matthew clearly calls “the other Mary” (Matthew 13:55; 28:1; cf. Matthew 27:56). As well, in the culture and language of first century Palestine the “bothers and sisters” of the Lord are first understood as blood relatives like cousins who become close as they grew up together in families (kinfolk) or clans. Secondly, as strangers became disciples of Christ it would have become quite acceptable to refer to them as “bothers and sisters in the Lord.” The Greek word used in the original text is ἀδελφοὶ or adelphoi which is ordinarily translated as “brethren.”
A few paragraphs later the Catechism explains that the virgin birth highlights Christ’s person and his redemptive mission. Quoting from the Council of Friuli, a church council in 796 AD that is seldom referenced, we are told that Mary’s virginity shows God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. “He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures” (ccc 506).
Mary’s virginity is a sign of her own faith. As both virgin and mother, Mary is a perfect symbol for the Church who receives God’s Word in faith and brings forth new life for the children of God. This new life comes not from “the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:16). Accepting it is our prerogative.