In January the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, suffered a minor scandal concerning the virtue of the Mother of God. It came to light that an English professor had taught Emmanuel Carrère’s 2014 book The Kingdom—a self-consciously provocative work about the author’s struggle with his Catholic faith and the unlikely survival of the early Church—to a group of five upperclassmen as part of an elective course in the spring of 2018. The Kingdom is something of an odd elegy to faith by an agnostic who finally couldn’t believe, and thus Carrère takes aim at the religion’s more incredible dogmas; the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary never seems to escape this particular kind of complaint. “This woman knew a man in her youth,” Carrère muses, somewhere between argument and fantasy. “She had sex. She might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated.”
When word of The Kingdom’s use on campus began to circulate among the wider Catholic community, Franciscan initially came to its professor’s defense. But a day later, as outrage mounted, the university banned the book, and the professor who had assigned it was removed from his post as the English department’s chair. There’s more than enough in The Kingdom for a Catholic to dispute, but it was the doubt cast on Mary’s virginity that got the book banned and its unfortunate instructor chastened. If the Church and world persist for another two thousand years, the subject will still be maddeningly controversial.
Why is this particular doctrine of the faith so deeply important? The virgin birth emphasizes Christ’s divinity by giving him appropriately mystical origins. Permanent celibacy also maintains for Mary a special category of sinlessness, marking her as free of lust. And, set against her historical background, Mary’s perpetual virginity would have lent her a unique singleness of purpose. Scripture is full of people whose loyalties are divided between the earthly and heavenly—David is divided between his Lord and his lust; Peter is divided between Christ and cowardice—but Mary’s cause is one and all-consuming: “Her prerogative is the consequence of her divine motherhood which totally consecrated her to Christ’s mission of redemption,” as Saint Pope John Paul II put it in a Vatican audience in 1996.
But the perpetual virginity of Mary is also critical insofar as she is identified with the Church. “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary,” Pope Francis remarked during a 2014 address, explaining that “her motherhood continues through the Church, who brings forth sons and daughters through baptism, whom she nourishes through the Word of God.” In a sense, the Church takes its cue from the Virgin herself: like Mary, the Church is devoted to its own…
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