Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Our Lady's Virginity In Partu

The New Theological Movement has a post on the Virgin Birth which lays out the orthodox dogma and then goes on to interpret it in the traditional pious manner (ie, in the most extraordinarily miraculous and literal way), but some interesting points have been raised in the comments thread.

I wrote a reply there which I'll re-post (and maybe expand on a bit) here. These are just thoughts and musings, really, I don't have any firm claims or conclusions on any of this yet really, and if I slip into anything heretical sounding it is unintentional. I am, however, quite frank in my physiological descriptions, so be warned if you are squeamish or think such biologizing of Our Lady is indelicate. Anyway, my thoughts:

The virginity "in partu" is certainly dogmatic.

I do wonder, however, how much of the specific theories or implications about what "virginity in partu" concretely means...are dogmatic.

That (to use the frank biological terms) Mary's hymen was not ruptured, at least, seems unquestionable. If the dogma of her virginity in partu is to have any meaningfulness to it rather than just being an empty tautology, that seems to be the bare minimum.

As Cardinal Ratzinger himself once said, "The cavalier divorce of 'biology' and theology omits precisely man from consideration; it becomes a self-contradiction insofar as the initial, essential point of the whole matter lies precisely in the affirmation that in all that concerns man the biological is also human and especially in what concerns the divinely-human nothing is 'merely biological.' Banishment of the corporeal, or sexual, into pure biology, all the talk about the 'merely biological,' is consequently the exact opposite of what faith intends. For faith tells us of the spirituality of the biological as well as the corporeality of the spiritual and divine. On this point the choice is between all or nothing. The attempt to preserve a spiritual, distilled remainder after the biological element has been eliminated denies the very spiritual reality which is the principal concern of the faith in the God become flesh."

So, clearly, for Mary to be a real "sign" or signifier...we have to be talking about physiological and not just moral virginity. The outward sign must signify the inward reality in our Sacramental understanding of the world and our typological system.

However, I'm tempted to wonder just how much is necessarily implied beyond that.

Indeed, the way the Fathers and Theologians (and even the post on NTM) sounds sometimes like these men didn't or don't have a terribly good understanding of the female anatomy...

For example, physiologically speaking, the hymen and the cervix are two different things. Saying that Mary's hymen was not ruptured and that her "womb was not opened"...are two very separate physiological claims.

The womb is always "open" a bit before pregnancy, that's how menstruation happens (though this interesting article, from which I got the Ratzinger quote, explores that very question about Our Lady under the appropriate title "Where Angels Fear to Tread"). And certainly, while there is an understandable symbolic connection between physiological virginity, in the sense of an intact hymen, and moral virginity (ie, though one can happen without the other, first penetration and rupturing of the hymen often coincide)...there is no immediate connection between the stretching of the cervix and lack of sexual intercourse (it is not the "closure" of the womb, the uterus, which is immediately affected by sexual experience, but only of the vagina).

[All this also brings up the question, as an aside, of just what constitutes even "moral virginity." The Catholic Encyclopedia, following Aquinas in the Summa, defines it as, "the absence, in the past and in the present, of all complete and voluntary delectation, whether from lust or from the lawful use of marriage; and the formal element, that is the firm resolution to abstain forever from sexual pleasure." It should be noted that, strictly speaking, under such a definition any willful sexual pleasure, not merely intercourse but even just solo masturbation, would forfeit the aureole; as Aquinas says, "whether copulation takes place or not." This may disturb some of you accustomed to the "pop cultural" definitions of virginity which (at their most "technical") refer only to penetration or (at their broadest) only to genital interaction with another person. Then again, this "theological" definition also thankfully sees women who are raped as still potential moral virgins and it is, of course, only a total lack of any willful venereal pleasure which makes sense as an internally consistent moral category.]

Either way, there are some strange questions raised if we insist that her womb, her uterus itself (and not merely the seal of her virginity, ie, the hymen) remained "closed" afterward. Do we mean the mucus plug (which only would have developed with pregnancy in the first place) never released (ie, water breaking)? And then what happened to the umbilicus, the placenta, or the fluid of the amniotic sac? Did they all pass out miraculously too? I will add for consideration this interesting tidbit: I've heard that the Lateran at one point in history claimed to have the after-birth and umbilicus of Christ as a relic preserved as some sort of gelatinous mass in a vat of oil.

Furthermore, passing through "like light through glass" doesn't necessarily seem the only way to preserve the virginity in partu. For example, the hymen could have miraculously stretched (like bubble gum or something) only to "snap back into place" after the infant Jesus passed through; the hymen is already perforated (for menses to pass out) anyway, there's already an opening or openings. And so a "stretching" theory, for example, would not necessarily exclude pain. And yet would be another possible way to imagine virginity, even physiologically, being preserved in partu; the dogma requires us to believe it was preserved somehow, it does not require us to believe it was preserved by Christ passing out in the manner of a subtle body (ie, the "beaming down like Star Trek" theory).

Which does bring up Revelations. Yes, as one might point out, the Woman of Revelations crying out in labor pains is Ecclesia in the pains of persecution, of birthing Christ into the World. But the thing about our typological system is that it is wonderfully coherent. If we can say something of the Church, we can almost always say it of Mary. If the Church has "birthing pains" parallel to Her suffering at the foot of Her Bridegroom's Cross throughout history...there is something potentially fitting about the idea that the Virgin Mary (as Type of the Church) would have "played out" this same symbolism (even while remaining a virgin like the Church).

Furthermore, the No Birth Pains idea seems to involve a notion of the Immaculate Conception that is perhaps an over-extension. Mary was conceived already a state of sanctifying grace, in original justice...but that didn't mean she had the Preternatural Gifts restored. Arbitrarily granting her some but not all of them on account of her sinlessness strikes me as, well, arbitrary (I even have questions about just what her freedom from concupiscence would have meant; I'm not convinced it necessarily meant the Preternatural Gift of Integrity...

Then again, maybe it was just because Christ did not want to hurt His Mother, or as merely a miraculous sign (though, for whom? Who would have possibly seen the state of Our Lady's cervix!?) along the lines that Aquinas, I believe, suggests that Christ took on each of the four features of a glorified body (impassibility, clarity, subtlety, and agility) during various miracles even before His Resurrection in glory.

So I'm not saying the traditional very extraordinary interpretation isn't possible or correct. I just don't know if the bare minimum of the dogma itself requires it. One would not seem to be a heretic (though, perhaps, guilty of something like "offense to pious ears") if one proposed any of the alternatives I mention above, as long as one held that the hymen itself remained unruptured somehow. I think there is at least room for discussion and debate when it comes to the "minimalist" vs "maximalist" interpretations of this dogma.

Our Lady remained even a physiological virgin in the miraculous birth of Christ, to be sure, but just how, by what method this was accomplished, or how much it implies for what specifically and concretely went on behind the "cloister wall" of the hymen (ie, in terms of the dilation of the cervix, or stretching of the birth canal, or bleeding and fluids, or the afterbirth)...I do not think are within the scope of the Revealed dogma itself. And so, I would also point out, that any teaching about lacking birthing pains would necessarily be a separate article of faith, as a lack of pain is not intrinsically required by either the idea of in partu virginity or the Immaculate Conception.


Marco da Vinha said...

I've also wondered about this for some time, as I've heard doctors say that the hymn can be ruptured quite easily, even without intercourse (an example at the time given to me was of horse riding).

Also, I've never understood the implications of Our Lady's virginity AFTER Christ's birth. I accept it as Church teaching, yet I don't necessarily understand why it is important. Is it related to the prophecy that the Lord has the power to open what is shut, and shut what is open? From a more "worldly" POV, I guess it would be interpreted as there being no possibility of the Blessed Virgin having had other childern afterwards, thus maintaining our belief in Our Lord's conception via the Holy Spirit (I don't know if this last part came out intelligible or not).

Amy said...

lol, I wonder about this too. I chalk this up to too many men in early Church theology without the balance of either women or correct anatomy lessons... the hymen already has holes in it, usually. That is how menstrual fluids escape. If your hymen has no holes whatsoever, you can go into toxic shock from the blood etc being blocked up. It does happen. I even sort of feel like I can't imagine Mary being in labour and having no pain at all. What would her contractions have felt like? I like your perspective. Oh and another thing that bugs me is how in nativity images, she is always covered from neck to ankles. Um, she just gave birth people!! There would be blood! She would be breastfeeding! I feel like a sort of Marian Docetism causes people to freak out at this idea, if you know what I mean. I plan to devotionally draw the nativity with all of the normal elements I visualize in the next few days. I feel like ultimately this is one of the things theologians should not have bothered to try to explain...!