The "Mary" month of May is slowly drawing to it end, and it appears that my friend Mr Nathanael Blake has posted his latest in our discussion, which has shifted from the saints in general to Our Lady's Perpetual Virginity in particular. We have reached a sort of consensus on some of the points, I suppose.
"I agree with my friend that for the average Protestant who doesn’t believe in this doctrine (and may have never heard of it), it matters little if Catholics believe in it, and going out of one’s way to pick a fight on the subject is bad form....I acknowledge that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity could possibly be correct, but I think it unlikely."
In an earlier post, he admitted that it was a possible--in not the most likely--interpretation of the Biblical data to allow for the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity. That is to say, the Bible does not contradict this doctrine in an insurmountable way. When the Bible says "brothers of the LORD" it might be interpreted to mean "step-brothers" or "cousins" (since adelphos also has both of these meanings), and when "Joseph knew [Mary] not until she bore a son" does not imply that he knew her after, only that he didn't do so before. From the standpoint of a Protestant using only the Bible, Saint Mary's perpetual Virginity may not be the best or most obvious conclusion, but it is a possible conclusion nonetheless. This is a big step forward for most Protestants to make--whether or not it actually represents any change in the particular case of Mr Blake--and was the whole goal of my original post in the first place.
On this particular doctrine, this is about as far as a Sola Scriptura Protestant can reasonably be expected to come. There is, after all, a reason why the Marian doctrines are often the last to be accepted by converts from Protestantism to the Church. I wouldn't expect evidence from Tradition, or from apocryphal accounts, or from the Magisterium to amount to much so long as Sola Scriptura is the norm, even in a modified form which acknowledges Tradition but cannot admit that it contains anything in particular.
I think Mr. Sanders is a bit unfair in his position, which seems to be that if this is the only doctrinal point keeping me from a brisk doggy-paddle across the Tiber I ought to reconsider my opposition, and if there are other points, why worry about this one? This would seem to apply to any of the sticking points, effectively cutting off discussion.
This statement deserves a bit of correction. I originally said:
Once evidence and arguments become a matter of interpretation--are adelphos literally brothers, or just cousins? does "until" mean "not before, but certainly after" or simply "not before, and it says nothing about after"?--then the doctrine is on the table as a sort of "judgment call."
It is then a matter of deciding: do I want to be in communion with the Church? If so, then I must consent to this doctrine; but I have no insurmountable objections to it, either. If not, then why not? If this is the lone doctrine which is keeping me out, why is it keeping me out? Are my objections to it really so strong? But if the doctrine is such that a reasonable explanation for it exists, then the objections are not insurmountable; if I find myself in the position of saying "this keeps me out of the Church, though it could be true as well," then it is not really the doctrine which is the barrier against joining the Church. The objection must lie elsewhere.
I've added some emphases. The doctrine is not demonstrably false--it may even be quite reasonably true-- and yet it keeps me out of the Church. Why? It becomes a sort of vicious feed-back loop: "Doctrine x is wrong." "Why?" "Because the decisive evidence for it is the Church's authority, which I believe is wrong." "Why is that?" "Because the Church has authoritatively stated that this doctrine is true." To be fair, there are usually other objections to the Church's teaching authority--as is true in Mr Blake's case--and these might be the more important objections. However, if these are the important objections, then why "pile on" with this doctrine?
Of course, in Mr Blake's case, there are additional objections. But if I am reading his remaining objections correctly, they are based more on philosophical interpretation then direct Biblical objections. To be fair, some cite the Bible as support, but they are not so direct to to say "such and such passage definitively and without equivocation states that the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity is false." This is not to trivialize these objections, but at this point they are going a bit beyond the Bible in their underlying assumptions.
For example, I cite the parallels between the Ark of the Covenant and Our Lady.
Mary had acted for a time as the ark in which God dwelt literally and physically. She was the Ark of the New Covenant. Saint Joseph had surely been taught Scripture, being a devout Jew, and so he surely knew about the Ark of the Old Covenant. Just as surely, he knew that it was forbidden to touch the Ark, so much so that when King David's servant Oza touched it, he was struck down by God
He responds (emphasis mine)
Even if we accept the analogy of Mary to the Ark of the Covenant, there are some serious difficulties with this argument. The old Ark was a sacred box, the new Ark was a living woman. Furthermore, recall that when Christ died, Scripture records that the veil in the Temple that concealed the Ark was torn in two, symbolizing the access to God through Christ of the New Covenant. Thus, might we not consider the marriage (including sexual relations) of Mary as also symbolic of the New Covenant? Christ made it so that we can approach the Ark.
So far, so good. But there is at least one underlying assumption here. That assumption is that Our LORD was survived not only by Saint Mary, but also by Saint Joseph, or alternatively that Our Lady re-married after the death of Saint Joseph. In any case, no mention of St Joseph is made in the gospels after the finding of Jesus in the Temple when He was 12 years of age, and certainly no mention is made of His Mother re-marrying. This doesn't prove for certain that Our Lady was a widower when the veil in the temple was torn, but for what it's worth, I will add that it is a part of our tradition (with a little t) that Saint Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and St Mary. Further, if she was married during His death, it raises the interesting question as to why Our Lord would give her care to His beloved disciple*.
The other question Mr Blake poses is how this Perpetual Virginity "would not violate Christian principles of marriage." This was in the context of my analogy concerning illness of a spouse--a flawed analogy, of course, because analogies an seldom if ever perfect--in which I noted that in such a case the marriage might go unconsummated and yet would still be valid. He replies, "Yes, but the marriage was not contracted with the intention that it be sexless and sterile. Catholic doctrine teaches that those incapable of sexual intercourse are not to be married." The assumption here is that Saints Mary and Joseph knowingly entered into just such a marriage. However, the Church has made no such proclamation as a matter of faith. It is entirely possible that Saints Mary and Joseph entered into their relationship with the intent to consummate it: we simply don't know either way.
If this last bit seems like a weak (though still quite valid) point, it is worth examining a little more closely what Canon Law has to say about marriage, since this is presumably where any contradiction between the special case of the Holy Family and the more general cases of Catholic marriages might be found. I say this with the brief preface that I am not a canon lawyer, so what follows is my honest if not foolproof interpretation of Canon Law. What is worth noting is that even if they did enter a marriage with the intent to not consummate it, I do no think that this violates Canon Law per se. There are several seemingly relevant sections of Canon Law.
First is Canon 1084 section 1: "Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have sexual intercourse, whether on the part of the man or on that of the woman, whether absolute or relative, by its very nature invalidates marriage." Note that this Canon applies to people who are impotent, not to people who decide not to consummate their marriage. Moreover, it must be known that one or the other is impotent prior to the marriage for the marriage to be invalid (see Canon 1084 section 2). This was clearly not the case for Our Lady, since she gave birth. As for Saint Joseph, there is no evidence that he was known to be impotent; indeed, the Protoevangelion claims otherwise, or alternatively the Protestant sources who like Mr Blake argue that Our Lady had additional children by Saint Joseph**.
The second seemingly relevant Canon is Canon 1088, which states that "Those who are bound by a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute invalidly attempt marriage." But this also cannot be applied to the case of either Our Lady of Saint Joseph, since neither is known to have made a public vow of perpetual chastity, and neither is known to have been in a "religious institute" (that is, a religious order like the Franciscans of the order of Preachers, or a monastery/cloister or the priesthood, etc). Thus, there s no contradiction with Canon Law, though of course said law is not considered infallible teaching and did not exist at the time of Saints Mary and Joseph.
This leaves Mr Blake's baseless charge of "dis-ingenuity" which was presumably leveled against the Church but by extension is leveled at me.
"The Church has always taught that adoption (as per Saint Joseph) is a perfectly valid way for a marriage to ‘be fruitful.’" I find this slightly disingenuous, since the Church would not (or at least, should not) marry a couple who declared their intention to refrain absolutely from sex, but to adopt children.I have argued why the Church might permit such a marriage. He has stated that she should not do so, but has failed to provide his reasoning as to why this should apply to all cases in general and this case in particular.
I think this is about enough for this week's post. I have more that I could say here, but this is already quite long. At this point, Mr lake has accepted my main point--if only tenuously--that the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity is at least not incompatible with what the Bible has to say. What's left over is interpretation and questions concerning implications, which I have answered in a manner which should be acceptable to Mr Blake and his theology. There will always be more questions, of this we can both be sure. However, I think this is a good stopping point for now. I know how it is to be "in continual engagement with Catholicism [or Protestantism], and therefor having to regularly explain and defend our Protestantism [or Catholicism]": a respite is always welcome***.
*Catholics, of course, have an additional understanding of this verse, but I think it is also fair to argue that Christ did care enough about His mother to be sure that she was looked after and provided for when He had left. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and thus do not present a dichotomy, in any case.
**It is interesting to note, incidentally, that Canon 1085 (section 1) adds that "A person bound by the bond of a previous marriage, even if not consummated, invalidly attempts marriage." There is, therefore, a explicit provision pertaining to marriages which are not consummated--a provision which makes sense only if such marriages exist.
***Ecumenism is a worthy goal, and apologetics are almost inevitable in ecumenism. However, like any worthy goal, these require quite a bit of effort, and thus at times frustration. On the other hand, they are also quite rewarding. This entire discussion gives me the perfect opportunity to post a link to the invaluable Professor peter Kreeft's talk concerning ecumenism.