Trent & “Nativity”: Did the Blessed Virgin experience labor pains?

In the new movie "The Nativity Story" which premiered yesterday at the Vatican, the Blessed Virgin is depicted as having pain from labor and childbirth. It must be granted that the pain she is depicted as having was not has severe as that depicted in the film by Elizabeth at the birth of John the Baptist.

Some folks are commenting on this issue in the entry I posted on this film,which does not surprise me at all, given the penchant of some to focus on one issue and thus seemingly lose sight of the whole.

Still, it caused me to dig around a little and find out if the Church has anything clear about this matter which might invite us to a consent of mind and will. Here is something.

“To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate she brought forth Jesus the Son of God without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.”

(Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, Trans., John A. McHugh, O.P., Charles J. Callan, O.P., South Bend, Ind., Marian Publications, 1972, p. 4).

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  1. Jill says:

    From reading the comments, I don’t see people as losing sight of the whole picture, but instead striving to understand this one aspect of our faith that we’ve held for centuries. Since most priests don’t teach this stuff anymore, it’s no wonder to me why no one knows the tradition that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after childbirth.
    Thank you for looking it up, though. Hopefully this will serve as a teaching moment for many Catholics.

  2. Deacon John says:

    With all my heart I believe that the birth of Jesus was miraculous, as many saints have told us (Read ‘City of God’ by Ven. Mary of Agreda)! That’s why movies like this turn me off (‘Jesus of Nazareth’ had Mary in pain too!) and I try to watch those that don’t upset me. ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ had the Nativity in all it’s splendor without upsetting me. Jill is right. Even priests don’t teach about Mary’s perpetual Virginity and when I proclaim it, they think I’m either nuts, or a fanatic traditionalist. I’ve been even called a heretic because of these Truths!

  3. RBrown says:

    It is the opinion of St Thomas that Mary’s perpetual virginity includes a miraculous birth in which she continued in physical integrity. This is considered a manifestation of His Godhead.

    St Thomas is basically following the tradition of the Church, which includes popes and Fathers, e.g., Leo the Great.

    Interestly enough, the Doctor Aequivocus, Karl Rahner, has a interesting essay on this. First, he painstakingly sets down the various texts that affirm her perpetual virginity (including birth). Then he says that no Council or Pope has defined the doctrine.

    On the other hand, when a Council or Pope has defined doctrine (e.g., Chalcedon), Rahner will counter with the argument that such doctrinal formulae are bound by a particular time and place.

  4. Jordan Potter says:

    I know this is just an anecdote, and one that I cannot confirm, but a few years ago I was told (by an insurance agent, of all people) about a woman who has had several children, but has never had much if any pain or travails during her labors. The insurance agent said he knew the woman personally, but that’s all I know. I don’t even remember the agent’s name anymore. Anyway, he said her labors always last about an hour and she has never experienced labor or delivery as painful, amazing her doctors. The agent said that this is a rare ability, but it’s not entirely unknown for woman to have.

    Assuming this man was telling me the truth, it seems to me that if a woman who contracted original sin could have such easy deliveries of her children, how much more likely would it be that the Second Eve, Mary Immaculate, would have such natural powers in her body as to be able to bring forth the Savior without pain? (Of course, that consideration doesn’t account for the fact that Mary was and remains a virgina intacta, but the Perpetual Virginity is, after all, a miracle, and my anecdote would only have to do with the powers of Mary’s body as they would be since she was unstained by sin.)

  5. Kevin says:

    I’ve never heard this before, either. It’s more tradition than faith.

  6. Catholic Lady says:

    Interesting – while I have know that Mary was “ever virgin”, I never considered this aspect, i.e. physical virginity but rather that she had never been with man. I guess this is because of my long career in health care and knowing there are many ways one can and do lose the physical character of virginity while still remaining a virgin. Some may be surprised that the opposite is occasionally also true.

    I always accepted that if the conception was a miracle, then so could the birth be – that’s a matter of faith. As a matter of logic, it seemed strange that Mary should have to carry the infant Jesus in her womb until the time of birth if the birth was to be other than the normal way, i.e. miraculous. Of course the manner of this miraculous birth shall remain always a mystery to us in this world.

  7. Jim McMurrry says:

    As a physician, I don’t doubt the veracity of the insurance agent’s friend related by Jordan Potter. I have heard similar stories of “no pain” though they were not first hand. I never doubted those. That is part of what makes medicine interesting: the variety, while similarities remain.

    Without getting into theology (not my field) there is a major difference between average/common and “all” — suddenly I sort of suspect I may be taking us back to “pro multis”–but the point should be made that it is highly unusual to have obstetrical labor without pain, though not impossible. I suppose one might view this as so unusual that it might be counted as miraculous in any case.

  8. Dan Hunter says:

    The Blessed Mother cetainly was not an average woman,physically, or obviously spiritually.May we always invoke Her sweet name as our Co-Redemtrix.Regina Coeli.

  9. Fr C Johnson says:

    Two items:
    First, numerous doctrinal statements by the Popes and others specifically affirm the Blessed Virgin remaining intact “in partu”: e.g., St Leo I (Letter to Julianus), St Hormisdas (Letter to the Emperor Justin), the Council of Toledo XVI, and Pope Paul IV (Apostolic Constitution, “Cum quorundam hominum”). Likewise, Pope Alexander III says explicitly that, [Maria] … peperit sine dolore” (“gave birth without pain”). Clearly this is a matter of faith and not simply a theological opinion or something of that sort.

    Second, I would take issue with the idea that the faithful should ignore what is contrary to the faith in view of the “whole picture.” If something is contrary to the faith in one respect, it is contrary to the faith simply speaking. As the eminent Fr Garrigou-Lagrange once said: “To say that something is good according to a particular aspect [“secundum quid,” in scholastic language], is to say that it is bad simply speaking [“simpliciter”]. In my opinion, this profound truth is too often lost sight of nowadays as we grasp after (understandably so) something edifying or consoling. Fr Johnson

  10. Dan Hunter: You wrote: “May we always invoke Her sweet name as our Co-Redemtrix”

    Well… that muddies this topic, but if and when… if… that is ever defined, then we may do so. Also, remember the “p”, “redemptrix”.

  11. dcs says:

    Fr. Johnson, thank you for saying so eloquently what I was trying to say. I think we have to be very careful in this day and age when so many of our beliefs are under assault. In my mind there is something distasteful about the notion that Our Lady suffered labor pains while giving birth to Our Lord. I also wonder whether childbirth is something too intimate to be depicted on screen anyway. Maybe that makes me something of a prude.

  12. dcs says:

    Well… that muddies this topic, but if and when… if… that is ever defined, then we may do so. Also, remember the “p”, “redemptrix”.

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf, given the use of the title by XXth-century Popes (including the late Pope John Paul II), might we not invoke Our Lady under this title even though it is not “defined”?

    Msgr. Calkins has an excellent article on the matter here:

  13. I think that gets us a little far off topic. Let’s stick with one thing at a time and strive for some clarity first, okay?

  14. Maggie says:

    This “distasteful” talk is strange to me. Isn’t it “distasteful” to think of our Lord beaten, tortured,
    crucified, and is corpse hanging dead on a cross?

    Why the exemption of Mary from the normality of human existence and rest with “virginity” = “no sex and
    total dedication to God’s will?”

    The constant appeal to mystic visionaries is disturbing to me, as well.

  15. Judith Muehlbauer says:

    It’s clear to me you don’t need to appeal to visionaries to come to the conclusion that Mary should not have had to suffer labor pains. Labor pains, as God himself made clear in Genesis, were the specific consequence of original sin. Why should Mary, who was free from original and actual sin, suffer a pun such a penalty? It wouldn’t be just or appropriate. It’s quite different in nature from Christ’s suffering. Christ died for the sake of sinners.

  16. Romulus says:

    In Orthodox iconography, the Theotokos usually appears wearing a garment that covers her head and shoulders, caller the maphorion. The maphorion is always depicted with three stars — one on each shoulder, and one on the forehead — as an icongraphic reminder of Our Lady’s virginity beforer, during, and after childbirth. This is not to offer medical or theological opinions, but merely to point out that the belief of Mary’s perpetual physical virginity is of great antiquity and very much in the mainstream of Christian belief.

  17. Remember, that the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity is not being questioned. What is under discussion is whether or not she experienced the pains of childbirth.

  18. Landrew says:

    I agree with Maggie. Our Lord humbly died in a bloody gooey mess on the cross. Why would it be above Him to enter the world in the same way? And if it is not above our Lord, why would it be above our Lady?
    If memory serves me correctly, Ludwig Ott has some interesting comments on this in his “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”. After listing the many who have declared that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, he then points out that what “virgin” really means has not yet been defined. The ancients considered it as a physical state, and state of moral purity, whereas modern man thinks of more in terms of just the latter.

  19. dcs says:

    I apologize for taking the discussion off-topic.

    Why the exemption of Mary from the normality of human existence and rest with “virginity” = “no sex and total dedication to God’s will?”

    Well, because certain Church Fathers and Popes wrote that Our Lady’s virginity also referred to her bodily integrity. If Mary gave birth like a “normal” person, then her bodily integrity would not have been preserved. Therefore the birth of Our Lord must have been miraculous.

    Suppose, for a moment, that this teaching that Our Lady suffered no pain when giving birth to Our Lord is just a “theological opinion.” What grounds are there for setting aside this “theological opinion” in favor of something else? Is there another “theological opinion” holding that she did suffer labor pains?

  20. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    The mariologist Fr.Rene Laurentin taught that the virginity in partu was not on the same level as virginity before and after because is was based on an insufficient knowledge of physiology.He also cited Ott.

  21. Dan Hunter says:

    The birth of Christ was brought about divinely.
    The death of Christ was brought about by man.
    The Divine always works in the metaphysical and non carnal plane Christs birth was not painful to The Blessed Mother,it was quite the opposite.Apologies for not spelling Our Ladys title of Co-Redemptrix.correctly.
    God bless you Father

  22. Matthew says:

    Ignace de la Potterie in his fascinating study “Mary and the New Covenant’ draws some interesting connections. He suggests that the passage in Jn.1:13 where it says ‘not born of blood’ suggests that John knew of this miraculous manner of Jesus’ birth. He also suggests that while Mary did not suffer the pangs of childbirth when Christ was born she does in fact suffer those pangs of childbirth on Calvary as the Church is born. Food for thought

  23. Look what WDPTRS\’s friend Zadok found in one of John Paul II\’s audiences:

    On Calvary, Mary united herself to the sacrifice of her Son and made her own maternal contribution to the work of salvation, which took the form of labour pains, the birth of the new humanity.

    This is a very interesting quote spoken by the late Pope on Wednesday, 17 September 1997.

    More context (with my emphasis):

    Blessed Virgin is Mother of the Church

    1. After proclaiming Mary a \”pre-eminent member\”, the \”type\” and \”model\” of the Church, the Second Vatican Council says: \”The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honours her with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved mother\” (Lumen gentium, n. 53).

    To tell the truth, the conciliar text does not explicitly attribute the title \”Mother of the Church\” to the Blessed Virgin, but it unmistakeably expresses its content by repeating a statement made in 1748, more than two centuries ago, by Pope Benedict XIV (Bullarium Romanum, series 2, t. 2, n. 61, p. 428).

    In this document my venerable Predecessor, in describing the filial sentiments of the Church, which recognizes Mary as her most beloved mother, indirectly proclaims her Mother of the Church.

    2. This title was rather rarely used in the past, but has recently become more common in the pronouncements of the Church’s Magisterium and in the devotion of the Christian people. The faithful first called upon Mary with the title \”Mother of God\”, \”Mother of the faithful\” or \”our Mother\”, to emphasize her personal relationship with each of her children.

    Later, because of the greater attention paid to the mystery of the Church and to Mary’s relationship to her, the Blessed Virgin began more frequently to be invoked as \”Mother of the Church\”.

    Before the Second Vatican Council, this expression was found in Pope Leo XIII’s Magisterium, in which it is affirmed that Mary is \”in all truth mother of the Church\” (Acta Leonis XIII, 15, 302). The title was later used many times in the teachings of John XXIII and Paul VI.

    3. Although the title \”Mother of the Church\” was only recently attributed to Mary, it expresses the Blessed Virgin’s maternal relationship with the Church as shown already in several New Testament texts.

    Since the Annunciation, Mary was called to give her consent to the coming of the messianic kingdom, which would take place with the formation of the Church.

    When at Cana Mary asked the Son to exercise his messianic power, she made a fundamental contribution to implanting the faith in the first community of disciples, and she co-operated in initiating God’s kingdom, which has its \”seed\” and \”beginning\” in the Church (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 5).

    On Calvary, Mary united herself to the sacrifice of her Son and made her own maternal contribution to the work of salvation, which took the form of labour pains, the birth of the new humanity.

    In addressing the words \”Woman, behold your son\” to Mary, the Crucified One proclaims her motherhood not only in relation to the Apostle John but also to every disciple. The Evangelist himself, by saying that Jesus had to die \”to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad\” (Jn 11:52), indicates the Church’s birth as the fruit of the redemptive sacrifice with which Mary is maternally associated.

    The Evangelist St Luke mentions the presence of Jesus\’ Mother in the first community of Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). In this way he stresses Mary’s maternal role in the newborn Church, comparing it to her role in the Redeemer’s birth. The maternal dimension thus becomes a fundamental element of Mary’s relationship with the new People of the redeemed.

    Do you see the progression of his thought? There is assent, fecundation, labor, birth, nurturing. Fascinating. However, John Paul II associates Mary\’s pains with Calvary, not Bethlehem. So, this doesn\’t get up closer to a defense of pains of physical childbirth.

  24. hermitmcdermit says:

    The question of whether or not Mary experienced labor pains in giving birth could perhaps be seen in the same light as her Dormition. Saints and theologians have pondered for centuries as to whether or not Our Lady experienced a physical death before her Assumption into heaven. I have heard it expressed that Mary “chose” to experience all of the human condition (except for sin) as did her Divine Son, who also experienced death on the Cross. There is a strong tradition that she did indeed experience death, witnessed by the Apostles. Could it not be that Our Lady also underwent pain in giving birth, by consent of her will)in the fullness of her humanity, as did her Son in accepting death on the Cross?

  25. The virginity of Our Lady before, during and after the Birth of Jesus is defined doctrine of the Church. With all deference to Canon Laurentin, the definition of Our Lady’s Virginity in partu was never dependent on a scientific knowledge of physiology, so the lack of it makes no difference at all. The point is that the both the conception of Jesus and His birth are miraculous. We are not talking about a natural birth that may or may not have caused a rupture, or may or may not have been accompanied by pain. We are talking about a miraculous birth that has been affirmed over and over again by the likes of St. Ambrose St. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Leo the Great, St. Bernard, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, to mention only a few, and defined by the Lateran Council in 649.

    That virginity is the sign of Christ’s divinity, and as the “great sign” it is inviolable and perpetual. The threefold distinction of before, during and after, used continually by the Fathers and the magisterial pronouncements would make no sense at all unless the birth is actually distinguishable from the conception. Virgin Birth does not mean a birth that results from a virginal conception. It means a birth that is virginal, plain and simple. It seems to me that the universally affirmed threefold virginity is done a rather absurd kind of violence unless we just say in plain English (or Latin, Greek or Hebrew) that the Virgin Birth is really a virgin birth, and has no natural explanation. After that, the painlessness of the birth is a no brainer.

  26. MacBeth says:

    Just a thought…
    One can give birth painlessly, with medication. But childbirth is still a physical act, requiring strength, straining, breathing, etc., even if it’s painless. Would the birth of Christ be a physical act on the part of Mary, with or without pain, if he passed, “as light through glass”?

    Great blog, Father, and great discussion, as always.

  27. Pingback: Air Maria » Blog Archive » New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story and the Virgin Birth

  28. johnny d says:

    If we had the ability to create our own mothers, we would create them beatiful and without sin. The last
    thing we would do is harm them in any way. Well, we cannot create our own mothers. But one Man could, and
    one Man did. Jesus created a spotless vessel from whom He took his flesh. If He in His Love made her
    sinless and graced her with the incarnation, does it seem logical that he would then cause her intense
    suffering while giving birth to a sinless savior who is God Himself? Think for a moment when God touched
    your life in a special way. Think “Amazing Grace”. Did you suffer? Or was it a time of joy? Mary was
    the first person to receive Communion. Long before her Son would share the last supper with his apostles,
    Mary held within her the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord. No sin + God’s Love and Grace +
    communion with our Lord = JOY. The virginal conception was miraculous. The virginal birth was miraculous.
    Mary is ever virgin. Jesus took his flesh from Mary. He did not cause her to suffer to accomplish it.

  29. Kathy says:

    The Catechism of the Council of Trent clearly states the details of the
    miraculous birth of Jesus, Article III, “Born of the Virgin Mary”. Isn’t
    this Catechism considered doctrine of the Church? If so, why all
    the confusion?

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