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Semper Virgo: The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

NOTE: Sources all across the board were used for this, from Modern Roman Catholic sources to Reformed Scholastic sources, to Patristic sources. They are Francis Turretin’s Institutes (Reformed Scholastic), Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology and Theological Outlines (Anglican Scholastic), St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Medieval Scholastic), Joseph Pohle’s Mariology: A Dogmatic Treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (Pre-Conciliar Roman Catholic Scholastic), Scott Hahn’s Hail Holy Queen (Modern Roman Catholic: Lay Level), and St. Jerome’s Treatise Against Helvidius (Church Father).

Introduction

The usual response someone will get when they affirm that the Blessed Virgin Mary is “Semper Virgo” that is, ever-virgin, is “that’s Catholic nonsense.” The assertion gets laughed down as a pagan/gnostic absurdity that only a die-hard Roman Catholic would even think to believe. Historically, this is not the case, as something which was believed “Quod Ubique, Semper, et Ab Omnibus” it was affirmed by the Early Reformed, Tyndale, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Perkins, Turretin, Bullinger, Cranmer, Vermigli, Whitaker, Guy de Bres, Andrewes, Gouge, and Ussher, just to name a few. In fact, it even made it into a few Reformed Confessional documents, such as the 2nd Helvetic Confession (the most widely received Reformed Confession) which calls her “Semper Virgo,” in chapter 11.

What then is going on here? Were they just dumb? Were they closet Papists who forgot to leave behind a few doctrines from across the Tiber? Clearly not, for, how could many of those who banned Easter and Christmas be liable to holding on dearly to Rome. What is actually going on here is that holding Mary as Semper Virgo is the Biblical, ancient, and Catholic faith, therefore we ought to believe it, even when not bound by official dogmatic statements of a magisterium as in Rome.

What is Semper Virgo?

The acceptance of Semper Virgo requires two affirmations. First, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was a Virgin antepartum, that is, before the birth of Christ. This is non-controversial amongst all Christians, as is affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was born of the Virgin Mary.” This is expressed explicitly in scripture. The second affirmation is that the Blessed Virgin Mary remained a virgin Post Partum, that is, that she remained in a state of virginity after the birth of Christ. This is controversial today, for it is rejected in large swaths of Protestantism, yet it has reached universally accepted status in the teaching of various ecumenical councils, and rejection of Post Partum was always anathematized by the Church Catholic. This teaching is not explicit in scripture, but may be implicitly found.

Now, there is a third aspect of the perpetual virginity, virginity In Partu, that is, that in the birth of our Lord the physical markers of virginity were not removed. In this, the birth of Our Lord was painless for the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is much disagreement about this now, and at the time of the Reformation, there was much disagreement. This doctrine arose later in the Patristic era, this doctrine is not found explicitly in scripture, and is argued by conjecture. Yet, we may say that this was ecumenically received in East and West within the undivided church. In the Reformation, it was almost completely rejected by the Reformed, accepted in part by the early Lutherans, and taught dogmatically by the Roman Church. This third aspect will play a small part in this article and will only be mentioned briefly.

Virginity In Partu

This doctrine (In Partu), as mentioned above, has a weaker tradition than the other two aspects of the doctrine of Semper Virgo, but, this does not mean that it ought to be rejected. For, the Church Catholic, in its reflection upon this doctrine, gradually came to expound this doctrine in its fullest sense, developing from the seed of earlier teaching into the full tree of dogmatic truth.

The earliest explicit example is found in St. Ambrose of Milan and the Synod of Milan led by him (390). St. Ambrose declared:

“Perversely they assert that she conceived as a virgin but was no longer a virgin when she brought forth [her Son] … But if men will not believe the teaching of the priests, let them believe the pronouncements of Christ, let them believe the Apostles’ Creed, which the Church has always guarded and continues to preserve.”

Both East and West came to accept and teach it conciliary in the pre-schism era, for example, a Western Synod, the Lateran Council (649) taught,

“If anyone does not properly and truly confess in accord with the holy Fathers, that the holy Mother of God and ever Virgin and immaculate Mary...incorruptibly bore [Him], her virginity remaining indestructible even after His birth, let him be anathema.”