Divine Necessity and Divine Virginity
A conversation late last night with my sister-in-law gave me the opportunity to think through a few theological concepts I hadn't revisited in some time. She is keeping vigil on the banks of the Tiber, not yet Catholic, but in another sense a better one than I (she woke up at 6am this morning to make the hour's drive to fulfill her weekly 7am Perpetual Adoration shift). She continues to think through a few doctrinal issues, with which she is not yet comfortable. One of them, as is often the case, is the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. (It does often strike me as funny, sometimes, that the sex life of the mother of Christ should be the stumbling block for so many.)
She asked why it really mattered that Mary remained a virgin. Was it just, perhaps, an arbitrary choice which she happened to make, which might as well have gone the other way? If so, why are Catholics so insistent on it? I replied that, like many Catholic dogmas, the virginity of our Lady is not, from the perspective of the divine oikonomia, strictly necessary, but this does not prevent it from being meaningful. Even the virginity of our Lord, I proposed, was not strictly necessary, meaning that it would not have violated any immutable divine laws should our Lord have chosen to marry. (Sure, it would have created its own theological dilemmas, but that's another story - theologizing with hypotheticals has never been my business.) The fact that He chose not to marry, however, is pregnant (no pun intended) with spiritual and theological meaning. It is only a handful of Catholic beliefs, such as those relative to the Holy Trinity, which are strictly necessary, in that they could not have been otherwise; the majority of them, even including the Incarnation, are not. (I must remark that, on these points, especially that of the Incarnation not being strictly necessary, many are prepared to disagree with me, including, as I recall, the estimable Pontificator.)
This provoked a fiery response: How dare I propose that the Savior's celibacy was not necessary, that it could have been otherwise, that the Incarnate God might have freely chosen to take a wife??! I responded that our Lord had taken up human nature in its integrity, becoming like us in all ways but sin. This would exclude necessarily only those aspects of our human nature which arise through the advent of sin - concupiscence, a darkened intellect and eviscerated will, etc. - but would include, at least potentially, all of human nature in its integrity. I say potentially because Christ, as a historical person, did not (and could not) realize actually every accidental quality relative to human nature, which would have been impossible, requiring him to be both blonde and brunette, male and female, tall and short, and so on. While, potentially, all of these were available to Him, he chose to take on only some - Jewishness, maleness, and the like. Even in the course of his life, although he could potentially have taken up any and every human vocation, he chose actually that of celibacy rather than that of marriage. He could not, obviously, have chosen both. None of these choices, I believe, were intrinsically out of his reach, unavailable to him, except those which resulted from sin. To say that marriage was an impossible choice for the God-man is to say that marriage is a product of sin. Thus, the Catholic in the room swoops to the defense of the intrinsic goodness of marriage.
The choices which the Incarnate Word did make, as far as which accidental human qualities and which vocation to take up, were not strictly necessary. God could have incarnated himself, I believe, as a middle-class Italian seamstress in uptown New York. But the fact that He did not, the fact that He chose to enflesh himself as a Jewish male in first-century Palestine, in the lower-income household of a manual laborer, and that He then chose to enter upon the life of a celibate - these facts, precisely because they could have been otherwise, are thereby rendered especially theologically meaningful. And we are freed to speculate why these things are so. And each of these accidental qualities of Christ's life - we know so few of them - are themselves packed with spiritual and theological potency, which is why so many theologians have written so many books about why Christ was male, why He was Jewish, why He was born precisely in the time He was, etc. (the last being a crucial point in Augustine's history of the Roman Empire in City of God) (sorry, have to get my Augustinian plug in somewhere).
I was then, of course, asked what meaning I thought lay in our Lord's choice of celibacy, and what in the choice of His mother. My answer there got me into a bit of trouble. I'll relate that discussion, perhaps, down the road.
# posted by Jamie : 12:29 PM