Monday, December 17, 2012

The Birth Pangs of Mary: Part 4

My critic responded to Part 3 of my series on the birth pangs of Mary. This is probably her best effort yet, but I am still not convinced that I should dispose of this doctrine. What do you say? Leave a comment and let me know.

As before, her words will be indented and italicized.
At the top of your November 29 thread (The Birth Pangs of Mary: Part 3), you wrote, "My critic responded to my latest post on the birth pangs of Mary." At the words, "latest post," you provided a link to your November 27 thread (... : Part 2). The truth is that I had not "responded to [your] latest post." If you check, I responded twice to your first post -- on October 7 and November 23. Thus, I did not even read "Part 2" until after I had read "Part 3."
The majority of what I shared in Part 2 and Part 3 I already provided in the comments section of Part 1. I added a paragraph or two of new material just so I could give you a more substantial response. It's difficult to really get into it in the combox since one doesn't have the ability to format and blockquote and all that. I structured our debate the way I have so that it would be easier to follow. Point-rebuttal, point-rebuttal, it just works better that way. I hope you don't think I was trying to be dishonest or to misrepresent you in any way. That was not my intent.

Speaking of "pangs/pains," I'll apologize in advance if today's message of mine gives you a few dolors! They cannot be helped, unless I censor myself mercilessly.
No need for you to censor yourself. I've heard much worse, I can assure you, and I learned a long time ago not to take this sort of back-and-forth personally. My caricature probably makes me look younger than I am. This is certainly not my first rodeo.

I want to start by giving you a bit of advice for you, as a veteran apologist to a younger one:
If you have a weak argument in mind, it is better to omit it, lest you taint your whole essay by appearing to be foolish or careless.
Only in your mind is my argument weak. I shall defend it shortly!

Here's why I offered the above advice:

Last time, I wrote, "There is no record of such a thing in the scriptures nor in the earliest Church Fathers." [I just added the emphasis.]

To this, you responded, "Don't speak so soon. There is in fact a substantial record on this point. From the early Church fathers:"

At this point, you quoted a passage from "Ascension of Isaiah," including the words, "... and we heard no cries of pain."

First, "hear[ing] no cries of pain" does not mean that pain was not felt. It is quite possible that Our Lady made "no cries of pain" on Calvary despite her suffering.
According to the Ascension of Isaiah, many thought that Mary had not given birth because the midwife had not gone up to her and there were no cries of pain. But, these are reasons not for an absence of birth but for the miraculous nature of that birth. No midwife + no cries of pain = something extraordinary. I think that's the whole point of the passage. I really doubt this was intended to mean that Mary had pain, but she held it in.

Second, and more important, you misidentified the "Ascension of Isaiah" as a work of "one of the earliest Church Fathers" (my phrase, which you were claiming to refute). The "Ascension" is an apocryphal work, written by an unknown person, not by any of the "earliest Fathers of the Church."
Any time someone quotes from the early Church "fathers", early writings of anonymous or uncertain authorship are always included as well. That's just common Catholic apologetical practice. Even the Catechism quotes from such works (for example, the Apostolic Constitutions, the Didache, the Epistula ad Diognetum). I think you're splitting hairs now.

Next, you quoted a passage from the "Odes of Solomon," including the words, "she labored and bore the Son, but without pain."

First, as with the "Ascension of Isaiah," the "Odes of Solomon" was written by an unknown person, not by any of the "earliest Fathers of the Church."
Even documents of unknown authorship are valuable because they witness to the faith of the people from the period in which they were written. I don't think you should be so quick to dismiss these works. It is very common practice to refer to them.

Second, you defeated your own purpose with the quoted passage, because it says that Mary "labored." This means that she suffered "labor pains!" What was "without pain," according to the "Odes," was the delivery of Jesus into daylight. THAT moment was presumably painless, because, in keeping with Mary's conjugal virginity, no physical defloration occurred (so said the "Roman Catechism" after the Council of Trent).
There's no reason to believe that if she labored, then she must have felt pain. If she can deliver without pain then she can labor without it. Read the passage from the Odes again: "And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain ..." The qualifier could just as well refer to BOTH the labor and the delivery.

At this point, you at last quoted from one of the "earliest Fathers of the Church," St. Ignatius of Antioch ... but your quotation was ineffectual and not helpful to either of us, since it did not make any reference to Our Lady and pain.
Here is the quote from Ignatius again:
"Mary's virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her childbearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 19; c. 107 AD)
Ignatius is alluding to the negative effects of the original sin. Sexual relations, childbearing, and life itself were tarnished by what Satan was able to compel Adam and Eve to do. Yet, Mary's childbearing was "hidden from the prince of this world." This means that Satan was not able to tarnish her childbearing as he has for all other women. The original sin brought pain in giving birth, and Mary was spared from that. Instead her childbearing was "brought to pass in the deep silence of God," where great mysteries beyond human experience are revealed.

Finally, you quoted from St. Gregory of Nyssa, including the words, "the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement."

Here, once again, I have two objections:

First, it was the "delivery" that was painless -- but "delivery" is a separate event that follows after "labor pains."
First, here is the quote in question:
"Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy." (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity 388 AD)
Now, it seems to me that he's using the word "delivery" as an umbrella term to refer to the labor and the birth. I tried to find the "Homily on the Nativity" where this quote originated to read Gregory's words in context, but I couldn't find it. I did however find a different homily of his on the Nativity, and here he expresses himself more clearly:
“Rejoice, thou that art full of Grace,” he said, “the Lord is with thee.” The words now addressed to the Virgin are the antithesis of those addressed to the first woman. The latter was condemned to the pangs of childbirth on account of sin; in the case of the former, sorrow is expelled through joy. In the latter case, sorrows precede parturition; in the former case, joy is the midwife of parturition. “Fear not,” says Gabriel. Since the expectation of travail arouses fear in every woman, that fear is banished by the promise of an agreeable childbirth.
We see from this that Gregory believed that Mary did not experience the pains of childbirth.

Second, St. Gregory of Nyssa was not one of the "earliest Fathers of the Church." He was writing 350 years after the death of Jesus. If you look at the writings of the men I had in mind (when I initially referred to the "earliest Fathers") -- Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian [if he can be included as a "Father"] -- you will not find statements declaring that Our Lady was without pain.
First of all, I don't think the quotations I provided from this earlier period should be discounted (for the reasons I've already given).

Secondly, if in fact it could be said that the earliest fathers did not mention the painless birth of Christ, this could just as easily be because they were focused on other issues instead, such as the Christological heresies that were floating about. Or it could be because the Spirit had not yet led the Church to a fuller understanding of Mary's perpetual virginity that included a painless birth. There are other plausible reasons other than because they didn't believe in it. Of course, this assumes there's an actual scarcity of material on the subject, and I'm not convinced of that yet.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, your requirement to find proof from the "earliest" fathers is arbitrary and unnecessary. Since when do we discredit certain early Church fathers because they lived in the 4th century instead of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd? Their witness is just as important as the rest in establishing doctrine. The Catechism quotes Augustine more than any other early Church father, and he lived in the 4th and 5th century. Gregory of Nyssa is a towering mind in the early Church, eminently saintly and orthodox. It might be wise to listen to what he has to say.

So, my friend, as I stated above, "If you have a weak argument in mind, it is better to omit it, lest you taint your whole essay by appearing to be foolish or careless." You did not support your position with a quotation from "the earliest Church Fathers," and your quotations either left open the possibility of labor pains or actually affirmed their presence ("Odes").
If I thought it was weak, I wouldn't have presented it. We'll let the reader decide who has the stronger arguments.

May we move onto another sub-topic?
Yes, please do.

I have taken a look at Brant Pitre's analysis, and (unlike you) I have not found it to be "convincing." Now, why is Brant Pitre unconvincing? I just looked at more than ten Bible translations, and I found what I expected to find: They all have what he would mislabel "a loose translation."
There are numerous versions that confirm his translation as well. Perhaps you missed these?
Bible in Basic English: To the woman he said, Great will be your pain in childbirth; in sorrow will your children come to birth;

Common English Bible: To the woman he said, "I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children.

Contemporary English Version: Then the Lord said to the woman, “You will suffer terribly when you give birth. But you will still desire your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Knox Bible: To the woman he said, Many are the pangs, many are the throes I will give you to endure; with pangs you shall give birth to children

New Century Version: Then God said to the woman, "I will cause you to have much trouble when you are pregnant, and when you give birth to children, you will have great pain.

New International Version: To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

New Jerusalem Bible: To the woman he said: I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, you will give birth to your children in pain.

New Living Translation: Then he said to the woman, "You will bear children with intense pain and suffering.

Today's NIV: To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
We can both count bible translations. I'm not really sure if it proves anything.

The problem is that his translation of the Hebrew is not accurate. The actual, literal meaning is this: "To the woman He said, 'Multiplying, I multiply your sorrow ... .'" The repeated word is verbal (multiply/increase), not adjectival (great).

But even if we were to accept, "Great, great," that would not help Brant Pitre. He seems to be unaware of the fact that ancient Hebrew did not have adjectives of the comparative and superlative degrees, so a word was repeated once to denote a higher degree (and repeated twice to denote the highest degree). Thus, "Great, great" (like "Multiplying, I multiply") denotes "(to make) greater" -- as "holy, holy, holy" denotes "holiest." This is why so many (non-literal) Bible translations correctly use variations of the RSV's words: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing."
This is the part of your response that kept me from posting this sooner. I was trying to research the Hebrew, but, not being a Hebrew scholar myself, I was unable to definitively settle the matter. It does appear to me that both translations are equally plausible.

As Catholics, when a passage is unclear, what do we do? We turn to our Tradition. There is a long and firm tradition that has understood pain in childbirth to be a result of the fall. Church fathers, popes, theologians, authoritative documents throughout the history of the Church all say that Mary had a painless childbirth, and the main reason for this is because of her preservation from original sin. As a Catholic, I side with that, and I really don't see why it shouldn't settle the matter.

Final sub-topic:

Last time, I wrote, "As a mother who suffered both at her Son's birth and death, Mary is an excellent role model for mothers of today. She would not be as good a model if she did not suffer in giving birth."

To this, you responded: "That doesn't follow any more than it would follow from her other unique prerogatives that she failed then to be a role model. Is she no longer a role model for us [because] she committed no sin? No" [etc., with other examples].

You did not read my words carefully enough. I did not say that Mary would "no longer [be] a role model" if she did not suffer in giving birth. Instead, I said that she "would not be as good a role model."
So be it. My argument still applies. Mary's other unique qualities don't lessen her ability to be a role model for us, so neither should a painless birth. She doesn't become "not as good of a role model" for having a painless birth any more than she does for being sinless, or a perpetual virgin, or assumed into heaven.

Also, it was a logical fallacy for you to contrast this with the commission of sin. We women do not want to sin, so we do not want or need a role model for that. But we do want to do a good thing, like accepting suffering in childbirth, so it is good for Our Lady to be our role model for that.
You want to do a good thing by having a healthy sex life with your husband, yet Mary never had sex with Joseph. Would she "not be as good a role model" for this reason as well?

If I were in the midst of a painful half day of labor, and if I were to moan, "Blessed Mother, you went through this in Bethlehem, so please help me to accept the pain," you would tell me, "Stop that this minute! Mary felt no pain, so don't you dare say that to her. Talk to St. Monica instead!" (;-D)
First of all, I think that what she experienced at the foot of the Cross in giving birth to the Church makes her the perfect intercessor in such a circumstance, or in any moment of intense pain. Laboring mothers, cry out to her! Mary understands the fullest depths of human suffering.

If you don't buy that argument, there is another reason why laboring mothers would turn to Mary. Wouldn't such women long to have the peace and joy that Mary felt in giving birth to Jesus? Satan is the reason for the pain they are feeling, and Mary is victorious over him! Could these women not pray to Mary for a participation in that victory, for some of the peace and joy that she felt, so that they too may bring life into the world with ease? Seems like a no-brainer to me!

Either way, Mary is perfect role model and intercessor. I don't think her painless parturition diminishes that in any way.

All right, my friend. You can have the last word, if you wish. If I have not convinced you by now, I never will, so I will be satisfied with the opportunities received.
It's good for Catholics to hammer out these sorts of things. Good, well-intentioned Catholics investigating the ramifications of certain doctrines (in this case, Mary's immaculate conception and perpetual virginity) within the parameters defined by the Church. This is how dogma develops, and I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us, as He guides the Church, to the proper conclusion. I know you intended to give me the last word, but if you wish to respond, you are welcome to it.

Pax Christi,


  1. Monsignor Charles M. Mangan12/18/2012 2:10 AM


    Dear PhatCatholic,

    Praised be Jesus Christ! Hail Mary! Hail Saint Joseph!

    Thank you sincerely for your presentation of this very important matter.

    The question of whether Our Blessed Lady suffered pain during Childbirth is one that I have been interested in for years.

    I found your Website because I did a search about this question to see what I could locate.

    I have not yet read everything that you have written about this but look forward to the possibility.

    This question confronted me again during the last few days. A Christmas program being held in a Catholic church of which I know referred, in its first performance, to Our Lady's "birth agony" and "pain."

    I was troubled when I learned this and wrote to the moderator of the program. He assured me that all such references would be deleted in subsequent performances.

    About 12 years ago, I submitted a reply to a Jesuit monthly (now defunct) in England that carried a vicious diatribe against in partu Virginity by an English sociologist who is rather well-know these days in theological circles there.

    Her main argument was that since contemporary mothers could not really relate to Our Lady if She indeed brought forth Christ in a miraculous way, that is, without lessening Her physical intactness, and without birth pangs, such medieval and misogynistic concepts must be jettisoned--and quickly.

    I was not convinced of that position then. And I am less convinced of it now.

    Perhaps there are some women who find Our Lady "too much" in this matter. Yet, the ladies I know who have discussed this subject with me actually delight in realizing that Mary is "other" in this regard. They love the fact that She always was physically intact and never experienced birth pain.

    My love for Mary increased once I came to learn about these jewels in Her Crown.

    It would be great if each of us prayed one "Hail, Mary" daily in order to understand better these beautiful, edifying truths.

    Two brief, final points:

    1. I speak with reverence about your anonymous correspondent. Although I do not share her view on this topic, and while I do not share her opinion that your position is "weak," I wish her well.

    2. Our Blessed Lady wants you to continue to share your research far and wide. Thank you for what you have done and what you are doing. Your position is the traditional one that has been held by Saints and sinners alike.

    Pax tecum, PhatCatholic. Let us pray for each other.

    Sincerely yours in Jesus, Mary and Saint Joseph,

    Monsignor Charles M. Mangan

  2. Monsignor Charles M. Mangan12/18/2012 11:01 AM


    P.S. I forgot to add that when I submitted that reply 12 years ago as a response to the piece that attacked Our Blessed Lady's in partu Virginity, I was informed by the Editor that my response would not be published because I had repeated the "old" arguments. (He admitted that perhaps the sociologist's article had gobe too far.) Interestingly, the "old" arguments dealt with Mary's physical intactness and the absence of birth pangs, whereas the fresh and bold ideas were a denial of both.

    This reminds me that Catholics semper et ubique--always and everywhere--have accepted that the process of Christ's Birth neither lessened Our Blessed Lady's Virginity nor was the cause of birth pangs for Her.

  3. Thank you, Msgr! I'm glad that my post could be a source of edification for you. I also definitely need your prayers and am very thankful for them!


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