From the preceding evidence given for Saint Joseph’s perpetual virginity, one necessarily notices that the arguments in favor of this doctrine involve two factors: 1) They show that Joseph was a virgin during all the time that he lived with Mary. 2) They adduce conclusive evidence that he was not the father of the “brethren of the Lord.” Both these factors, taken separately, are clear, especially the first one. However, when put together they do not constitute a very conclusive proof, because of certain secondary aspects entering into the question. Did Joseph die before Mary? Could he not have lost his virginity in another way?
Very few of the statements we have adduced take all the different possibilities into consideration. However, all these different aspects are excluded at one time or another, so that, as a whole, we have good evidence for the opinion that Joseph was always a virgin. It seems that, as time went on, these two factors were united and included under specific declarations that Saint Joseph always remained a virgin.
These two factors stand out as separate, especially in the Fathers, where the argument in favor of Saint Joseph’s virginity is mainly negative. In the writings of the few Latin Fathers who speak about him, it appears that Joseph is not the natural father of Jesus, that he never had intercourse with Mary, and that he was not married before his betrothal to Mary. Saint Jerome’s assertions, of themselves, bring out his perpetual virginity.
It is to be noted that the Fathers keep very close to Holy Scripture. Their ideas that the marriage between Mary and Joseph was a virginal union, a perfect marriage, and that the “brethren of the Lord” were cousins are nothing more than the clearer expression of what is definitely implied in Holy Scripture.
Taken by themselves, the statements of the Medieval ecclesiastical writers do not present a very clear proof. They must be interpreted in the light of their contexts. Thus the statements comparing Joseph’s virginity to Mary’s or declaring that such a doctrine is the general belief among the faithful, and affirmation that Joseph made a vow of virginity, must be joined to the view of these writers on the question of the “brethren of the Lord.” Then we see that when these men said that Joseph was a virgin, their assertions included Joseph’s entire life.
It is only with the late Medieval and Modern ecclesiastical writers that the argument is clearly formulated: Joseph was always a virgin; he had to remain a virgin in order to protect Mary’s virginity. Such a doctrine is also very fitting because of the holiness and dignity of Saint Joseph, which flow from his mission as spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father of Jesus. This is also the argument presented today.
It must be remembered that comparatively little attention was given to this question till the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Period. The Latin Fathers and the Medieval ecclesiastical writers were concerned with more timely problems. Often Saint Joseph’s virginity is mentioned, but not given further thought. Yet it seems pretty clear that such a belief was in existence among these men who reflect the mind of the people to a great extent.
How then would one classify this doctrine theologically? There is indeed nothing defined on Saint Joseph’s virginity. In fact, the pronouncements of the Holy See say nothing bearing directly on this question. Now and again papal encyclicals refer to Saint Joseph as “the most chaste spouse of Mary,”1 and as a “witness of her virginity.”2 He is also called “the patron of virgins.”3
We may safely say, with regard to Saint Joseph’s perpetual virginity, that today it would be rash to deny this doctrine or to speak against it. However, as Durand points out, not one theologian has ever claimed that this was a dogma of faith or even a doctrine that could be defined.4 We can also say that, on this point, there is no general tradition which clearly reaches back to antiquity. Indeed over a period as long as the one covered, the statements are comparatively few and far apart. However, there is a basis for this doctrine in the writings of the Latin Fathers and ecclesiastical writers.
If we were to characterize the teaching in favor of Joseph’s virginity, perhaps the best note we could give to this doctrine is that it is at least very probable. The basis for this statement is Tradition, which includes not only the writings of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, but also, and perhaps more so, the belief of the faithful, which, since the time of Peter Damian, has become more and more pronounced in favor of this opinion. Thus, today, this opinion has gained “all but the universal agreement of theologians.”5 They present many a reason for accepting this belief: in particular, the virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph, the near impossibility of the hypothesis that the “brethren of the Lord” are son of Joseph, and especially the dignity and holiness of Saint Joseph which flow from his mission as spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.6
Mueller’s view gives us a good outlook on the question of Joseph’s virginity. After stating that the Fathers and later theologians have data from which Saint Joseph’s virginity can be deduced, he concludes his discussion in this manner:
When due consideration is given to all these strikingly significant facts — the high value placed upon virginity by Jesus and Mary, the eminent dignity of St. Joseph because of his most intimate association with our Savior, the Godman, who Himself was a virgin, and the Virgin Mother of God — must it not then appear most unlikely, an utter anomaly, if in spite of all this, St. Joseph did not also share in this prerogative of perpetual virginity? Thus it came to pass that this belief in St. Joseph’s perpetual virginity has worked its way finally to its general acceptance by Catholic Theology and by the joyful willing faith of the Catholic people.7
Leo XIII, “Quamquam Pluries,” A.S.S., 22, 65. See also Pius IX, “Quemadmodum Deus,” A.S.S., 22, 324. Decretum C.S.R. n. 4365, A.S.S., 13, 158. Benedict XV, “Bonum Sane,” A.S.S., 12, 313. ↩
Leo XIII, “Quamquam Pluries,” A.S.S., 22, 65. ↩
Ibid.: “ Virgins can look to him for their pattern and as the guardian of virginal integrity.” From the translation of Francis J. Filas, The Man Nearest to Christ, pp. 173 and 174. ↩
Alfred Durand, “Fréres du Seigneur,” Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi Catholique, 2 (1911), 145: “Le sentiment de saint Jérôme est devenu commun dans l’Eglise, et on a bien pu dire, qu’eu égard à l’action directrice de l’Esprit-Saint sur la piété des fidèles et le culte Chrétien, il y aurait témérité à le (virginité de saint Joseph) révoquer en doute, et scandale à parler contre; mais pas un théologien n’a prétendu que ce fût là un dogme de foi, ni meme une doctrine définissable.” ↩
Mueller, op. cit., p. 52. See also R. Corluy, “Etudes religieuses,” as given in Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi Catholique, 2, (1911), 144: “Le sens Catholique s’est définitivement pronounce pour l’idée du grand interprète (saint Jérôme). Il serait donc désormais téméraire de révoquer en doute la perpétuelle virginité de l’époux de Marie.” See Blanco, art. Cit., p. 218; Filas, The Man Nearest to Christ, p. 25. ↩
A. Michel, “Jésus-Christ,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 8 (1924), 1519: “L’opinion d’un marriage antérieur de saint Joseph, recueillie dans l’apocryphe, Protoévangile de Jacques, a eu, dès les premiers siécles de l’Eglise, quelque partisans parmi les Pères de l’Eglise. Aujourd’hui, elle est complètement abandonee. L’éminente sainteté de Joseph, la sublimité de sa mission, exigent de lui un amour de la chasteté poussé jusqu’à la virginité complete et perpétuelle. En fait d’ailleurs l’hypothése d’un premier marriage de Joseph d’où seraient issus les “frères du Seigneur,” se heurte à des difficultés telles que l’on peut conclure à son impossibilité.” ↩
Mueller, op. cit., p. 54. ↩