By Luke Lancaster
Many Catholics do not realize that the Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin all of her life. Many Protestant churches, however, do know that we believe this, and it is very upsetting to them. Why? Because they think it is obvious that a young married woman like Mary would have sexual relations with her spouse, St. Joseph. To claim otherwise would be just plain bizzare. Yet, as we will see, the doctrine that Mary was a perpetual virgin was held by nearly everybody in the early Church.
Mary was a virgin both before, during, and after her conception of Jesus. She never had sexual relations. This was not because sex is bad, but because she was set apart by God from the rest of humanity. She was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit! This was an immensely sacred thing, for she conceived God Himself in her womb. For a man to approach her would be like taking the communion cup from the Church and using it to hold M&M's in your cabinet, or like making the altar your pool-side tabletop!
Now, there isn't any explicit Scripture verses that prove that Mary was a perpetual virgin. St. Paul and St. Peter do not mention it in their explicit teachings. However, there does not have to be. For Tradition consists of those oral teachings which the apostles did not write down. It is that lens which we use to interpret Scripture, that which makes what is implicit - explicit. According to the early Church, Mary was set apart by God to be a virgin, one who dedicates her entire life to the service of God. This was not a development so much as simply a constant teaching of the Church, similar to the teachings on baptism. Let's read what Tradition has to say about the topic:
St. Jerome (c. 383) wrote an entire work on Mary's perpetual virginity against the heretic Helvidius who denied it. At one point in the work, St. Jerome notes the history of how the Church has taught about Mary's virginity. Helvidius quoted Tertullian and Victorinus as people who denied the Perpetual virginity of Mary, but Jerome responded with a mighty number of bishops who affirmed it: "Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius [108 AD], Polycarp [65-155 AD], Irenaeus [130-200 AD], Justin Martyr [100-165 AD], and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man" (Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19).
Origen of Alexandria (c. 248) said, “The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity” (Commentary on Matthew 2:17).
St. Athanasius (c. 360) said, “Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary” (Discourses Against the Arians 2:70).
St. Augustine said (c. 401), “In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than to impose it. And he wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom he took upon himself the form of a slave” (Holy Virginity 4:4).
This is only a small sampling of what the Tradition of the Church has to say about the topic. You can read more at this site: churchfathers.org. The main Scripture verse interpreted in the light of Tradition used to support the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is Luke 1:34. See a later article and how that verse was interpreted by men like St. Augustine.