Virginal Conception Is Biological Fact

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

The Gospel accounts clearly teach that Jesus’ conception was the work of the Holy Spirit and not just a theological expression of his divine sonship

The virginity of Mary and Jesus' virginal conception were the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 10 July. This truth of faith is set forth in the Gospels and confirmed by subsequent tradition. "The uniform Gospel witness testifies how faith in the virginal conception of Jesus was firmly rooted in various milieux of the early Church", the Pope said. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was the 26th in the series on the Blessed Virgin Mary and was given in Italian.

1. The Church has constantly held that Mary's virginity is a truth of faith, as she has received and reflected on the witness of the Gospels of Luke, of Matthew and probably also of John.

In the episode of the Annunciation, the Evangelist Luke calls Mary a "virgin", referring both to her intention to persevere in virginity, as well as to the divine plan which reconciles this intention with her miraculous motherhood. The affirmation of the virginal conception, due to the action of the Holy Spirit, excludes every hypothesis of natural parthenogenesis and rejects the attempts to explain Luke's account as the development of a Jewish theme or as the derivation of a pagan mythological legend.

The structure of the Lucan text (cf. Lk 1:26-38; 2:19, 51) resists any reductive interpretation. Its coherence does not validly support any mutilation of the terms or expressions which affirm the virginal conception brought about by the Holy Spirit.

2. The Evangelist Matthew, reporting the angel's announcement to Joseph, affirms like Luke that the conception was "the work of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:20) and excluded marital relations.

Furthermore, Jesus' virginal conception is communicated to Joseph at a later time: for him it is not a question of being invited to give his assent prior to the conception of Mary's Son, the fruit of the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit and the co-operation of the mother alone. He is merely asked to accept freely his role as the Virgin's husband and his paternal mission with regard to the child.

Matthew presents the virginal origins of Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. "'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel' (which means, God with us)" (Mt 1:23; cf. Is 7: 14). In this way Matthew leads us to conclude that the virginal conception was the object of reflection in the first Christian community, which understood its conformity to the divine plan of salvation and its connection with the identity of Jesus, "God with us".

Early Church firmly believed in virginal conception

3. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark's Gospel does not mention Jesus' conception and birth; nonetheless it is worth noting that Mark never mentions Joseph, Mary's husband. Jesus is called "the son of Mary" by the people of Nazareth or in another context, "the Son of God" several times (3:11; 5:7; cf. 1:11; 9:7; 14:61-62; 15:39). These facts are in harmony with belief in the mystery of his virginal conception. This truth, according to a recent exegetical discovery, would be explicitly contained in verse 13 of the Prologue of John's Gospel, which some ancient authoritative authors (for example, Irenaeus and Tertullian) present, not in the usual plural form, but in the singular: "He, who was born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". This version in the singular would make the Johannine Prologue one of the major attestations of Jesus' virginal conception, placed in the context of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Paul's paradoxical affirmation: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman ... so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4:4-5), paves the way to the question about this Son's personhood, and thus about his virginal birth.

The uniform Gospel witness testifies how faith in the virginal conception of Jesus was firmly rooted in various milieux of the early Church. This deprives of any foundation several recent interpretations which understand the virginal conception not in a physical or biological sense, but only as symbolic or metaphorical: it would designate Jesus as God's gift to humanity. The same can be said for the opinion advanced by others, that the account of the virginal conception would instead be a theologoumenon,that is, a way of expressing a theological doctrine, that of Jesus' divine sonship, or would be a mythological portrayal of him.

As we have seen, the Gospels contain the explicit affirmation of a virginal conception of the biological order, brought about by the Holy Spirit. The Church made this truth her own, beginning with the very first formulations of the faith (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 496).

4. The faith expressed in the Gospels is confirmed without interruption in later tradition. The formulas of faith of the first Christian writers presuppose the assertion of the virginal birth: Aristides, Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian are in agreement with Ignatius of Antioch, who proclaims Jesus "truly born of a virgin" (Smyrn. 1, 2).These authors mean a real, historical virginal conception of Jesus and are far from affirming a virginity that is only moral or a vague gift of grace manifested in the child's birth.

The solemn definitions of faith by the Ecumenical Councils and the papal Magisterium, which follow the first brief formulas of faith, are in perfect harmony with this truth. The Council of Chalcedon (451), in its profession of faith, carefully phrased and with its infallibly defined content, affirms that Christ was "begotten ... as to his humanity in these last days, for us and for our salvation, by the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God" (DS 301). In the same way the Third Council of Constantinople (681) proclaimed that Jesus Christ was "begotten ... as to his humanity, by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, she who is properly and in all truth the Mother of God" (DS 555). Other Ecumenical Councils (Constantinople II, Lateran IV and Lyons II) declared Mary "ever-virgin", stressing her perpetual virginity (DS 423, 801, 852). These affirmations were taken up by the Second Vatican Council, which highlighted the fact that Mary "through her faith and obedience ... gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, not through the knowledge of man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit" (Lumen gentium, n. 63).

In addition to the conciliar definitions, there are the definitions of the papal Magisterium concerning the Immaculate Conception of the "Blessed Virgin Mary" (DS 2803) and the Assumption of the "Immaculate and Ever-Virgin Mother of God" (DS 3903).

Mary's holiness and virginity are closely linked

5. Although the definitions of the Magisterium, except for those of the Lateran Council of 649, desired by Pope Martin I, do not explain the meaning of the term "virgin", it is clear that this term is used in its customary sense: the voluntary abstention from sexual acts and the preservation of bodily integrity. However, physical integrity is considered essential to the truth of faith of Jesus' virginal conception (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church,n. 496).

The description of Mary as "Holy Ever-Virgin, Immaculate" draws attention to the connection between holiness and virginity. Mary wanted a virginal life, because she was motivated by the desire to give her whole heart to God.

The expression used in the definition of the Assumption, "the Immaculate, Ever-Virgin Mother of God", also implies the connection between Mary's virginity and her motherhood: two prerogatives miraculously combined in the conception of Jesus, true God and true man. Thus Mary's virginity is intimately linked to her divine motherhood and perfect holiness.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 July 1996, page 11

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