The Church Fathers on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

O Virgin most pure and worthy of all praise, sanctuary consecrated above all mankind, field unploughed, virgin land, flourishing vine, living fountain. O fruitful Virgin, untouched by man, delicate treasure of innocence and holiness! – St. Germanus (Dollen 24)

The Church both East and West refer to Mary as ever-virgin. Yet while the Catholic Church unequivocally proclaims this to be true, other Christians do not always believe this. Some hold that Mary would have had relations with St. Joseph after Jesus was born. Some may even fall into the tendency to just see Mary as a simple vehicle for Jesus to get to earth and after that, she is not really special or important. Yet Mary herself proclaims, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in her Magnificat that: “All generations will call me blessed.” This paper seeks to better understand why the Church proclaims that Mary was a virgin vowed from youth, in her conception, during her giving birth, and through-out the rest of her life, by examining the Fathers of the Church, their traditions, and thoughts. 

St. Augustine says: Mary remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to Him, a virgin in carrying Him, a virgin in nursing Him at her breast, always a virgin” (Haffner 134). Pope John Paul II affirms this belief saying: “The Church has always professed her belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary” (Pope John Paul Aug. 28th 1). The Church teaches as definitive and as part of the deposit of faith that Mary was at every point of her life a virgin; before birth, at conception, during birth, and after birth (Haffner 146). 

Virgin Before the Birth of Christ – “Virginitas Ante Partum” (Haffner 135)

There is an old tradition in the Church that Mary had vowed herself to virginity from her youth. Haffner examines the biblical account of the Annunciation. He says that Mary’s response to the angel’s message about her future: “‘But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?’” (Haffner 136) indicates that not only did Mary not have relations with a man up to that point, but also that she did not intend to in the future. He says that in Greek, the use of the present tense with this expression is called the “present absolute” form of the verb “to know”, implying that there is no intention in the future either (Haffner 136/137). Augustine himself held this interpretation (Haffner 145). Some question to whether this is even likely given the culture of Ancient Judaism, where “… virginity was considered neither a value nor an ideal to be pursued” (Haffner 137). But at the time of Mary, there were the Essenes, who were a newer radical group who lived out celibacy, at least in part, for a greater religious life (Haffner 137). Also, John the Baptist most likely lived a celibate life, and this was well looked upon by his own disciples. So there can be seen some sort of new thinking with this regard (Haffner 138). 

But, there is more to Mary, than just the regular religious and social context of the time. She is going to be a key part in God’s plan of salvation and new era of redemption. Mary received the extraordinary grace of the Immaculate Conception, to be conceived without original sin. This intimate union with God from her very conception obviously must have influenced her (Haffner 138). There are also many fathers of the Church who talk about this vow that Mary made. Fathers such as St. Augustine, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Germanus of Constantinople affirm this view. They say that she had made a vow to present their child to the LORD, and so when Mary was three years old they took her to the Temple where “… the child herself mounted the Temple steps, and that she made her vow virginity on this occasion” (Haffner 138). 

“Mary wanted a virginal life because she was motivated by the desire to give her whole heart to God…” (Haffner 146). Pope John Paul II also upholds this view that Mary vowed herself to God as a virgin. He says that Mary with the intention of pleasing God gave her whole self over to Him, which allowed His will to be perfectly done in her. “In fact, her intention of virginity disposed her to accept God's will "with all her human and feminine 'I', and this response of faith included both perfect co-operation with the ‘grace of God that precedes and assists' and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit" (Pope John Paul II July 24th 2). And while it probably seemed to her that she was giving up natural motherhood to belong wholly to God, he raised her even higher than she could have imagined (Pope John Paul II July 24th 4). Truly one can say of Mary: “The singular presence of grace in Mary's life leads to the conclusion that the young girl was committed to virginity. Filled with the Lord's exceptional gifts from the beginning of her life, she was oriented to a total gift of self—body and soul—to God, in the offering of herself as a virgin” (Pope John Paul II July 24th 4). 

While most Christians hold as obvious that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary with no intervention of man, it is still an important point to confirm. In one examines the Gospel of Luke, he himself, does not allow for any interpretation other than that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Haffner 139/140). Matthew 1:18-20 says: “‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit’”(Haffner 141). The Fathers of the Church set out this doctrine clearly (Haffner 141). “From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely b"y the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporeal aspect of this event” (Haffner 142). Otherwise would the Church have had to undergo persecution or mis-understanding from “…non-believes, Jews and pagans alike…” (Haffner 142). 

St. Justin Martyr provides a beautiful image and comparison to illustrate this point. He says that Eve, the first mother of all the living, was a virgin but conceived “… the word of the serpent, [which] brought forth disobedience and death” (Haffner 142). But in order that evil may be conquered in the same way in which it came about, Mary, a virgin, receives the angel’s word and conceived Christ (Haffner 142/143). In 125 A.D. the Christian apologist Aristides explained to Emperor Hadrian “… that the birth of Jesus of a virgin, without human seed or will, is an essential part of the Christian creed, alongside the divinity of Christ” (Haffner 143). Ignatius of Antioch holds this position (Haffner 142). Hippolytus as well speaks beautifully on the subject comparing Mary to the Ark of the Covenant and saying that God has united creation to Himself by becoming incarnate in the “… all-holy Mary, ever-virgin, by an undefiled conception’” (Haffner 144). Origen in the third century defended this belief against the pagan Celsus, who not understanding or wanting to understand, denied the Christian teaching (Haffner 144). Tertullian and Augustine follow suit as well (Haffner 145). 

There are also many infallible teachings of councils on this subject: the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Lateran Council in 649 (Haffner 145), and the third Council of Constantinople in 681(Haffner 146). Mary’s virgin conception shows that God’s incarnation and salvation is His gift and prerogative to man. It also shows that Jesus, as the new Adam, is from Heaven, he is not just a man (Haffner 149). 

Virgin During Birth – “Virginitas in Partu” (Haffner 135)

The idea of Mary being virginal even during the birth of Christ is that, unlike normal births, Mary was left totally intact in her body. “The virginitas in partu includes the non-rupture of the hymen at the moment of birth, which takes place without any opening of the membranes or damage to Our lady’s body, and without pain” (Haffner 135). Referring back to Genesis and the consequences that God announces because of their sin, the normal pain and effects of child birth in women seem to be a consequence of the fall and sin. Thus, because Mary is without sin, she does not experience this rupture in her body. 

Mary has been compared to passages in the Song of Songs in a metaphorical way to her virginity in this regard as not being destroyed in childbirth. St. Jerome himself offered this interpretation. Song of Songs 4: 12 says: “She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride, a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain” (Haffner 150). St. Irenaeus says that Christ opened the womb in a pure way. “‘…the Son of God, the Son of man, the pure One opening purely the pure womb which regenerates men unto God, and which He Himself made pure’” (Haffner 151). St. Gregory of Nyssa claimed that Mary suffered no pain in her child-bearing as she experience no physical pleasure in conception. He beautifully compares Mary’s virginity in giving birth to the burning bush in the book of Exodus. He says that just as the bush aflame with God’s presence was not consumed, so too Mary who bears God, is not consumed or “withered” in her child-bearing (Haffner 151). Origen even alludes to a tradition that said that after Mary gave birth she went to the Temple and stood in the place where the virgins stood (Haffner 152). Several of the fathers compare this idea of Mary giving birth without losing her virginity in any way to a passage from Ezekiel which is referring to the mystical vision of the New Temple: 

The he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, facing the east; but it was closed. He said to me: This gate is to remain closed; it is not to be opened for anyone to enter by it; since the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it, it shall remain closed. (NAB 1015)

Amphilochius interprets this to be said of Mary. He said that “… the Incarnate Word ‘opened the Virgin’s womb without intercourse; he came forth in an inexpressible manner.’” “The way was thus paved for considering the Birth of Christ a true and miraculous Birth which preserved the integrity of His Mother” (Haffner 152). There are other church fathers who follow this thought about Mary. St. Ephraem says: “‘Just as the Lord made His entrance when the doors were closed, in the same way did He come forth from the virgin’s womb, because this virgin really and truly gave birth without pain’” (Haffner 153). St. John Chrysostom holds this as well. “Mary gave birth ‘without experiencing corruption.’ After her childbearing, ‘pure and holy’ as it was, she is a virgin still, and this is a ‘supernatural’ thing. … In being born of her, God ‘preserves her womb unchanged, and maintains her virginity unharmed’ where ‘the seal of her virginity’ is ‘unblemished’” (Haffner 152). Nilus of Ancyra fighting against Nestorius said: “‘In His birth Our Lord Christ opened the undefiled womb; after His birth He sealed the womb by His own wisdom, power, and wondrous activity. He did not break the seals of her virginity as all’” (Haffner 153). 

St. John Damascene (Haffner 153), St. Zeno of Verona, as well as St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome all (Haffner 154), St. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, Pope Leo the Great, and Pope St. Hormisdas all defended this belief as well (Haffner 155). According to Pope Leo this belief is something that is universally held. The tradition is ratified in 649 by the Lateran Council and also in 675 in the 11th Council of Toledo (Haffner 156). In recent times, the Holy See in 1960 as well as the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this belief (Haffner 158). 

Virgin After Birth – “Virginitas Post Partum” (Haffner 135)

This teaching of Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ is the teaching that after Christ was born she still never had relations with Joseph or any man or any children except Jesus (Haffner 159). Now to some, the Bible seems to contradict this. But in actuality this is not the case. If one understands the context of those scripture passages then one can see that this idea is false (Haffner 159). Some refer the passage in Matthew 1:25 which is when the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary into his home. The last line of the section says in English: “He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (NAB 12). Now, from how all the major Fathers of the Church speak of Mary, it would be unthinkable that Mary, who has been so elevated and graced in her role of salvation would break her vow of virginity with Joseph (Haffner 165). So they obviously had read this passage and never interpreted it that way. Haffner asserts: “The word ‘until’, in biblical language, negates an action in the past, but does not imply that it will occur in the future. This indicates that Matthew is concerned to emphasize that St. Joseph had no part in the conception of Jesus” (Haffner 53). This word is also seen in Psalms 110:1 and 2 Samuel 6:23 which affirm this use of expression (Haffner 70). 

Then there are those who see passages in the Bible which talk about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” Passages like Matthew 12:46-50 and Matthew 13:53-58 (Haffner 54). But in that ancient Jewish culture they did not express relations in the same way as today. It was common to call a close relative a brother or sister. This is because in their ancient Hebrew and Aramiac (Pope John Paul Aug 28th 3), they had no word for cousin. So many times “the Hebrew and Aramaic expression ‘ah’ was adopted for various types of relations” (Haffner 55). So those like James and Joseph who are called Jesus’ brother are held to be his cousins and the sons of who St. Matthew calls “…’the other Mary’ (Mt 13:55; 28:1;cf. Mt 27:56)” (Haffner 159). 

Some also see that St. Luke writes that “…Mary ‘gave birth to a Son, her first-born’ (LK 2:7). (Haffner 160). But the Greek word for first-born does not imply that Mary had more children, rather it is there to denote the rights and dignity that would have come with being a first-born in that time (Haffner 160). Pope John Paul says: 

But the word "firstborn" literally means "a child not preceded by another" and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. Moreover, the Evangelist stresses this characteristic of the Child, since certain obligations proper to Jewish law were linked to the birth of the firstborn son, independently of whether the mother might have given birth to other children. Thus every only son was subject to these prescriptions because he was "begotten first" (cf. Lk 2:23). (Pope John Paul Aug. 28th 3)

Origen seems that imply that this teaching was at that time already part of the deposit of faith. He says this: “There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to the opinion of those who think correctly of her” (Gambero 75). St. Athanasius says that if Mary had other children, why would Jesus have entrusted her to the care of St. John; why would she have abandoned her own family? (Gambero 104). St. Jerome says: “Some have falsely claimed that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ mentioned in Scripture are born to Mary from Joseph. This is definitely wrong to say about the ever-virgin Mary, who is the closed gate that will not be opened” (Dollen 151). 

There are many other Fathers of the Church who hold fast to this belief. St. Hilary of Potiers says that those who do not hold this teaching are “‘irreligious individuals, utterly divorced from spiritual teaching’” (Haffner 160). For him, it is necessary of Mary’s dignity that she always remain virginal. Other fathers who hold to this position include: Zeno of Verona, St. Jerome (who cites St. Ignatius, St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp, and St. Irenaeus) (Haffer 161), St. Ambrose, St. Augustine (Haffner 162), St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Leo the Great, Origen (Haffner 163), St. Basil the Great, Ephraem (Haffner 164), St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom, and St. John Damascene (Haffner 165). St. Basil says that “‘lovers of Christ refuse to lend their ear to the idea that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin’” (Haffner 164).  

Again referring back to Ezekiel, in St. Ambrose’s exegesis of Luke 2:22-24 on the Presentation in the Temple, he relates the passage to the gate in Ezekiel’s new Temple and says St. Ambrose interprets this gate to be Mary, whom God has come to man through and whom no one else shall enter (Haffner 150). Pope John Paul II says that in the earliest texts that Mary is referred to as just “virgin” but that it implies something for her whole life (Pope John Paul Aug. 28th 1). He also says that:

The early Christians expressed this conviction of faith in the Greek term aeiparthenos "ever virgin"—created to describe Mary's person in a unique and effective manner, and to express in a single word the Church's belief in her perpetual virginity. We find it used in the second symbol of faith composed by St Epiphanius in the year 374, in relation to the Incarnation: the Son of God "was incarnate, that is, he was generated in a perfect way by Mary, the ever blessed virgin, through the Holy Spirit" (Ancoratus, 119,5; DS 44). (Pope John Paul Aug. 28th 1)

There are also many Ecumenical Church councils and even solemn declarations as to Mary as “ever-virgin,” which shows her perpetual virginity. There is Constantinople II, Lateran IV, and Lyons II. In the solemn definitions of the Pope in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and also the doctrines of the Assumption, they refer to Mary as the “Blessed Virgin Mary” and the “Immaculate and Ever-Virgin Mother of God” (Haffner 146). How can people today think that being 2000 years removed from Jesus’ time that they know more than those who were only a few hundred years removed? The council of the Lateran in 649 said this: 

If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary is really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time, and without human seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned (Haffner 165). 


In seeking to understand why the Catholic Church affirms that Mary was a virgin her whole life, even during her giving birth, it has become clear from the Fathers of the Church and also Magisterial teaching that this belief is ancient and has always been held as part of the faith and non-negotiable. Mary had a special role to play in salvation history and part of this role is that she remain totally dedicated to God in virginity, this is the teaching of the Fathers and of the Church. 


Dollen, Charles. A Voice Said Ave! Selected Passages on Our Lady from the Writings of the Fathers, Doctors and Theologians; Free Translation. [Boston]: St. Paul Editions, 1963. Print.

Gambero, Luigi. Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999. Print

Haffner, Paul. The Mystery of Mary. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2004. Print.

Pope John Paul II. Wednesday Audience; August 28th, 1996:

Pope John Paul II. Wednesday Audience; July 24th, 1996: 

Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Pub., 1970. Print.