Canon Law and the Marriage of the Virgin Mary to Saint Joseph

Q:  Out of academic curiosity I thought of asking this: how can we describe the marriage between the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph in the light of present Canon Law?  I’m not certain, but I have heard that the Church regards their marriage as a true Marriage.  If that is so, is it only “Ratum”?  So as it is “Non-Consummatum” is it not indissoluble?

Some say that Mary took a vow of Virginity when she was small.  If that is so, is her consent defective, and consequently their marriage invalid? –Supun

A: It’s a good question!  The marriage of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph is one that is regularly studied by canon-law students, as an intellectual exercise.  The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were truly married in a Jewish ceremony, which the Church today would of course recognize as valid.  But theirs wasn’t a “typical” marriage: the Church has always taught that Mary was a virgin not only when she conceived her Son Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, but ever afterwards.  Matthew 1:24-25 explains:

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.  He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.

As even protestant Scripture scholars will confirm, the word “until” used in the original Greek text does not imply a change in the situation afterwards.  The Greek wording thus indicates that Mary always remained a virgin.  Many Church Fathers confirm this (such as Saint Jerome, in his famous tract Against Helvidius), and the Catechism specifically quotes Saint Augustine (d. 430) on this point, saying,

Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (CCC 510).

This is why the Catholic Church will tell you that Mary and Joseph were indeed married, but they lived together as brother and sister.  In other words, their marriage was never consummated.  This means that their marriage would be considered today as ratum sed non consummatum, as Supun correctly points out.  This phrase was discussed in great detail in “Canon Law and Consummating a Marriage,” but in short, the Church holds that no human power, and no cause except death, can dissolve a marriage which has been validly celebrated (ratum) and consummated (c. 1141).

This implies logically that if it can be proven that a marriage was celebrated but never consummated, it can be dissolved.  And as was described in the article just mentioned, canon 1142tells us that the Pope can dissolve a ratum sed non consummatum marriage involving at least one baptized person, if one or both spouses request it.

Of course when the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were married, the Catholic Church had not yet been founded, and thus this rule could not have applied to them.  And certainly neither of these holy spouses wanted their marriage to be dissolved!  Analyzing their marriage in terms of contemporary canon law is therefore not at all useful to us on a practical level—but as Supun notes, it is an interesting academic exercise.

Supun raises an additional point, however, that is worth addressing.  If the Virgin Mary had previously taken a vow of virginity and thus never intended to consummate her marriage, how could it be considered a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church?  After all, marriage as the Church understands it is ordered by its nature to both the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring (c. 1055.1).  As we saw in “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” unwillingness to have children with one’s spouse can affect the validity of the marriage, as it can vitiate consent.  And it is the valid exchange of consent that makes a marriage (c. 1057.1).  Is it therefore possible that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was invalid?

Hardly.  It is a fairly common pious belief that the Virgin Mary took a vow of virginity at some point in her youth, before her marriage—but this is definitely not an official teaching of the Church.  The Gospels are completely silent on this point; and while the early Church Fathers speak of Mary’s perpetual virginity (as discussed above), they say nothing in their writings about her having taken such a vow.  Nobody today knows for sure what exactly was happening in the Virgin Mary’s mind.

Jewish people at that time always wanted their children to marry and have children, in great part because they knew that someday the Christ would be born from a Jewish mother.  So if the Virgin Mary had made such a vow, and she told the Jewish priests about it, it’s a fairly safe bet that they would not have approved.  In any case, they could simply have released her from such a vow before the wedding.

We know that the Virgin Mary, being sinless, was always obedient.  Thus if she was told that she had to marry, we can be certain that she would obey, even if she didn’t want to do it.  That’s why it is simply not reasonable to think that her consent could have been defective.  Our Lady’s will was entirely in-line with the will of God—and if God wanted her to marry Saint Joseph, then she surely acquiesced in this whole-heartedly!

Writing in the 2nd century A.D., Saint Irenaeus, one of the early Church Fathers, described the obedience of the Virgin Mary:

Consequently, then, Mary the Virgin is found to be obedient, saying, ‘Behold, O Lord, your handmaid; be it done to me according to your word.’ Eve, however, was disobedient, and, when yet a virgin, she did not obey. Just as she, who was then still a virgin although she had Adam for a husband—for in paradise they were both naked but were not ashamed; for, having been created only a short time, they had no understanding of the procreation of children, and it was necessary that they first come to maturity before beginning to multiply—having become disobedient, was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. . . . Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith (Adversus Haereses III:24:4).

The Holy Family has always been held up as the ideal model of Christian family life.  As Pope John Paul II said on the Feast of the Holy Family in 1995,

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look to the Holy Family of Nazareth as an example for all Christian and human families. It radiates genuine love and charity, not only creating an eloquent example for all families, but also offering the guarantee that such love can be achieved in every family unit. May those who are engaged to be married be inspired by the Holy Family in their preparation for matrimony; may spouses look to it as they build their domestic community. May faith grow and may love, harmony, solidarity, mutual respect and openness to life reign in every home.

Thus it is inconceivable that there could have been anything “defective” in the consent of either Saint Joseph or the Blessed Virgin Mary to their marriage.  Catholic spouses are certainly not called upon to refrain from consummating their marriages as Mary and Joseph freely chose to do; but in other respects the marriage of the Mother of God to Saint Joseph is the ultimate Christian marriage, and lay Catholics who marry should aim to imitate the conduct of these two holy spouses in their lives.

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