Q. During the upcoming Christmas season, we are almost certain to have homilies describing the Blessed Virgin Mary as an unwed mother. What is the best way of describing Mary’s marital status, her relationship with Joseph, and her perpetual virginity? — J.D.H., California.
A. The best way is to read carefully chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel, particularly where he says that when “Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:18-19). Notice that Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband” and says that Joseph had decided to “divorce her quietly” when he discovered that she was with child upon her return from visiting her relative Elizabeth. But how could Joseph divorce Mary unless they were already married?
If these plain words are not enough to convince someone that Mary and Joseph were married when Jesus was conceived, then one can explain that, according to Jewish tradition, betrothal was the ceremony that united the couple in marriage. The second stage came a year later, if the woman was a virgin, when she moved into the house of her husband. In his apostolic exhortation Guardian of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II confirmed this tradition:
“According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his own house. Thus, before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her ‘husband.’ Mary, however, preserved her deep desire to give herself exclusively to God” (n. 18).
Mary’s relationship with Joseph was that of a wife, although they had decided to forgo marital relations and live in a celibate relationship. At an audience in 1996, Pope John Paul shed some light on their consecrated virginity:
“It may be presumed that at the time of their betrothal there was an understanding between Joseph and Mary about her plan to live as a virgin. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who had inspired Mary to choose virginity in view of the mystery of the Incarnation and who wanted the latter to come about in a family setting suited to the Child’s growth, was quite able to instill in Joseph the ideal of virginity as well.”
Commenting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary in his book To Know Christ Jesus, Frank Sheed said that the theory that Joseph was “merely brought in to keep the neighbors from talking would hardly be a marriage at all, but rather a mockery of marriage….We must think of them as truly husband and wife, with a true union of personalities, each bringing completion to the other, with a profound sharing of interests, sharing of lives, enriched by the special graces from God that their virginity called for….There was more love in that virginal family, more married love, than ever a family has known” (pp. 71-72).
The Church has always taught what St. Augustine taught in the fifth century, namely, that the Blessed Mother was “a virgin who conceives, a virgin who gives birth, a virgin with child, a virgin delivered of child — a virgin ever virgin.”
Q. Thank you for answering my question about why animals have to suffer, but I meant the suffering of animals in the wild, the savagery of their hunting and killing each other. What is the purpose of this type of suffering? — F.N., Iowa.
A. Animals were created by God to be at the service of man, who was given “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). “In God’s plan,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “man and woman have the vocation of ‘subduing’ the earth as stewards of God. This sovereignty is not to be an arbitrary and destructive domination. God calls man and woman, made in the image of the Creator ‘who loves everything that exists,’ to share in his providence toward other creatures; hence their responsibility for the world God has entrusted to them” (n. 373).
Animals do not possess a rational soul that governs their choices, but rather they act on instinct, preying on other animals for food, for survival, or to protect their families. While suffering and pain are a consequence of original sin, and while Jesus came to earth to be God’s “Suffering Servant” to ransom us from our sins, and while we can join our suffering to that of Christ (cf. the Morning Offering) to help atone for our sins and the sins of the world, we know of no purpose that is served by the suffering of animals in the wild.
Q. How are we to answer someone who says that the Catholic Church is “anti-science”? — D.F., Pennsylvania.
A. You should say that not only is the Catholic Church not anti-science, but it was the Church that invented modern science. Fr. Nicholas Steno, a Catholic priest, has been called the father of geology; Fr. Roger Boscovich has been credited as the father of modern atomic theory; Fr. Gregor Mendel is the father of modern genetics; Fr. Georges Lemaitre first proposed the “Big Bang” theory for the birth of the universe; and some 35 craters on the moon are named for Jesuit scientists and mathematicians.
As J.L. Heilbron of the University of California at Berkeley, who is not a Catholic, has pointed out: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy [from the 12th century to the 18th century] than any other and, probably all other, institutions” (The Sun in the Church, p. 3).
Furthermore, you can point out that the Catholic Church helped to rebuild Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It was the Catholic Church that preserved not only the Bible but the ancient secular writings of men like Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil. It was the Catholic Church that began the system of universities in Europe, established the first hospitals, pioneered modern international law, and sparked the scientific revolution. For more details on this, see Thomas Woods’ book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.
Q. Can you provide some good reasons why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood? — K.E.R., Connecticut.
A. We can suggest four reasons. First, because the Founder of the Catholic Church, Jesus Christ, did not choose women to be priests. He had plenty of worthy women who supported Him during His ministry, including His own Mother, but He chose to ordain only men. This was no putdown of women, since Jesus demonstrated high regard for the women of His time, including the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-30, 39-42) and Mary Magdalene, who had the privilege of being the first person to see Jesus after His Resurrection (John 20:11-18).
Second, Jesus is our Eternal High Priest who chose to come to earth as a man. Since priests are supposed to be icons or representatives of our Lord, who stand in the person of Christ at the altar, it is fitting that only men should be priests. You wouldn’t choose a man to represent the Blessed Mother, so why choose a woman to represent Jesus?
Third, Christ is often referred to as the Bridegroom and the Church as His bride. That symbolism would be lost with women priests since the heavenly Bridegroom would be represented by a bride and you would have the confusing situation of two brides instead of a bride and groom.
Fourth, the Church cannot ordain anybody and everybody. Every sacrament must have the right “matter.” You can’t baptize with Pepsi, you can’t change beer into the Blood of Christ. Beer isn’t inferior to wine, anymore than women are inferior to men. Man and woman, like beer and wine, are of equal worth, but because Christ chose only men to be priests, only baptized males are the proper matter for Holy Orders, just as only bread and wine are the proper matter for the Holy Eucharist.
In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II infallibly proclaimed that “in order that all doubts may be removed in a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the faithful” (n. 4).