Monday, March 10, 2008

Question: Did Mary endure labor and delivery?

Today in "Friends of Catholic Exchange," Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle posted an interview with me about Behold Your Mother. It's also here at her blog "Embracing Motherhood."

One question that she asked deserves special mention here, because it is one that I sometimes get from other people. Did Mary endure normal labor and delivery when she gave birth to Jesus?

Donna: Was there any point in writing the book when you had to be especially careful that the creative process did not cause you to contradict Marian dogma?

Heidi: I can think of one time, when someone questioned whether it is proper to suggest that Mary had a natural labor and delivery. While we must absolutely assent to those aspects of Marian dogma that have been declared by the Church, including her Immaculate Conception and Perpetual Virginity, there remain some issues connected with the Holy Family that have been debated by the Church Fathers, but have not been declared dogmatically.

One example would be whether Joseph was a widow or a virgin; while many apologists today explain the Scriptural references to Jesus' brothers and sisters by asserting that Joseph had children from a previous marriage, St. Jerome believed that Joseph, too, was a virgin all his life.

He wrote: "...I claim still more, that Joseph himself on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born. For if as a holy man he does not come under the imputation of fornication, and it is nowhere written that he had another wife, but was the guardian of Mary whom he was supposed to have to wife rather than her husband, the conclusion is that he who was thought worthy to be called father of the Lord, remained a virgin" (Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary Against Helvedius, 21 (A.D. 383).

I believe the question of how Jesus was brought into the world without violating Mary's perpetual virginity falls in the same category. That she remained a virgin cannot be questioned; how God accomplished this is a mystery. Some of the early Church Fathers believed she could not have experienced these things because she was without original sin, and so they concluded that she would not have fallen under Eve's curse ("In pain will you bring forth children..."). However, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was like us in every way except sin. God, who planted the Word in Mary’s womb miraculously, could have delivered the Infant Christ into the world just as miraculously, without damaging His mother’s hymen.

Mary could have endured the natural bodily processes of labor and still remained virginal for the simple reason that God willed it so. To me, Mary’s virginity and her suffering are really flip sides of the same “coin” of obedience. She was not spared other pain in connection with her motherhood – including having to watch her own son die a criminal’s death. A few hours of labor seem like a trifling thing by comparison … and a natural delivery would have been one more way that the Incarnate Christ was truly “one of us.”

If you have not already done so, check out Donna's new blog on the saints, which corresponds with her new book from OSV, The Catholic Saints Prayerbook.

Thanks, Donna, for doing this!