Tuesday, 7 August 2012

I’m with Müller: Mary’s virginity

01 arcabas La Annonce faite à Marie

Somewhat reluctantly,1 I’ll now turn to the second of the three most prevalent criticisms that ‘traditionalist’ groups have leveled against Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the new prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. For the context and my take on the first criticism that relates to the Eucharist, see a previous post.

First let us review the Catholic teaching that Mary was a virgin and look at what the Catechism says:
“The gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancée. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §497)
This certainly sets the tone very clearly: the Church (and I) believes that Jesus was conceived by action of the Holy Spirit while Mary was a virgin and that this is an event that is beyond human understanding – beyond what’s considered possible (i.e., I read this as being inconsistent with the regular laws of nature). Let’s look more closely at what is said though about the nature of Mary’s virginity:
“[T]he Church confess[es] Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”” (CCC, §499)
Finally, let’s see how the Catechism concludes the part dedicated to Mary’s virginity:
“Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”” (CCC, § 506)
So, to sum up, I believe the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin before during and after Jesus’s birth, that this was an event clearly outside the regular running of nature and that, while her virginity was very much real, its value is not in the physiological facts that sustained it but in it being a sign of her faith.

With the above in mind, let’s turn to Müller’s words2 (note that the changes indicated below are mine, based on the German original and versus the English wording found in a multitude of blog posts):
”[The perpetual virginity of Mary] is not so much about specific physiological proprieties peculiarities in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not having been opened, the hymen not being broken wounded, or the absence of birth pangs), but with about the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature, that had been wounded by Original Sin. […] The article of faith it is not so much about physiologically and empirically verifiable somatic details.” (Katholische Dogmatik für Studium und Praxis, p. 498)
The first thing to notice is that, if anything, the English translation used (critically) everywhere is more vague than the way I read Müller in the original German. I understand him as saying that Mary’s virginity is not about physiology and about what did or did not happen to her reproductive organs, but about grace, salvation and the person of Jesus. I see it as a reaction to the tomes upon tomes of pseudo–scientific accounts of how Jesus’ birth may have taken place vis a vis Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is about as useful as mediaeval 'scientists' writing treatises about lions without ever having seen one. If anything this is even worse, as there is no way for these ‘scientists’ to ever verify their claims.

Müller is not a scientist and he makes it clear that the Church’s beliefs about Mary’s virginity are not situated in a scientific context. As the Catechism (quoted above) also states, Mary’s perpetual virginity “surpasses all human understanding and possibility” and its analysis in terms of physiological categories is an exercise in futility.

Before concluding this little excursion, let me highlight one of the things that Müller said in a part that the quote bandied about by his critics left out: “To a mother, giving birth is not limited only to being a biological process.” This, to anyone who has children, is such an obvious thing to say that it seems hardly worth saying. Yet, in the context of the analyses and criticisms of Müller’s words on Mary’s virginity, it stands out like a beacon of sense in a sea of confusion and misguided breast-beating.3 What was it that went through Mary’s head when Jesus was born? Certainly not thoughts about her own hymen or birth canal, but an immense outpouring of love for her son and an awareness of the extraordinary consequences of her “Yes” to the message brought to her by the angel Gabriel now becoming even more of a gift to the world.

1 I feel great affection for Jesus’ mum, who is not only an example in following her son, in putting others before herself, in listening and adhering to God’s call, in consoling the suffering and in stepping to the fore when most needed, but also someone with whom I feel I have a personal relationship. Having to discuss their anatomy isn’t exactly what seems most attractive to me, but I do think it is worthwhile given the spurious accusations that I’ll address here.

2 As in previous posts, here too I'll try to be careful about seeing exactly what someone has said before jumping to attack or defend it. So, the original German of Müller’s statement is: »Es geht nicht um abweichende physiologische Besonderheiten in dem natürlichen Vorgang der Geburt (wie etwas die Nichteröffnung der Geburtswege, die Nichtverletzung des Hymen und der nicht eingetretenen Geburtsschmerzen), sondern um den heilenden und erlösenden Einfluß der Gnade des Erlösers auf die menschliche Natur, die durch die Ursünde "verletzt" worden war. … Der Inhalt der Glaubensaussage bezieht sich also nicht auf physiologisch und empirisch verifizierbare somatische Details« (S. 498). And, for completeness sake, here is the original wording of the missing part referred to later in the post: »Die Geburt beschränkt sich für die Mutter nicht lediglich auf einen biologischen Vorgang.«

3 Not wanting to taint the main body of this post with reference to it, I can still not overlook some of the utter nonsense that some commentators have dragged up in the context of this topic. Let me just give one example, which goes as follows: “On this note, to deny that the Virgin Mary was not preserved from childbirthing [sic] pains is an attack on the Immaculate Conception of the same Virgin Mary.” Immaculate Conception?! They may as well bring the instructions on how Noah was to construct the ark into play! [Apologies for the outburst - for those of you not versed in Catholic theology, let me just state what the Immaculate Conception is about: “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses.” (CCC, §491, emphasis mine) Sheesh!]