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“Ask a Priest: How could Mary’s marriage to Joseph be considered valid when it was not consummated?”
Q: As a non-Christian, I am baffled. Why was Mary’s marriage unconsummated? As it was not, how could it have been considered valid? And if it was not valid, how could it have been appropriate for her and Joseph to travel together? -D.G.K.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I appreciate your interest in Mary and your insightful question. Let me preface my comments by saying that what follows is based on faith, the testimony of Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit. I cannot “prove” anything and won’t try to. I will just try to explain what the Church teaches.
The Blessed Virgin Mary has a special role in the history of salvation. She conceived Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s plan was that the earthly Mother who would give birth to his Son would remain a virgin all her life. Virginity and celibacy can point our gaze to the afterlife, when there will be no marriage or conjugal life as we understand them.
Mary’s motherhood was exceptional, and it should be no surprise that her marriage was exceptional too. In this case, true, Mary and Joseph never had conjugal relations. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the conception of Jesus, and what Scripture suggests as far as Mary’s intention, “It may be presumed that at the time of their betrothal there was an understanding between Joseph and Mary about the plan to live as a virgin.” So said Pope John Paul II at a general audience on Aug. 21, 1996.
In a 1989 document on St. Joseph, Redemptoris Custos, John Paul II wrote, “While clearly affirming that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that virginity remained intact in the marriage (cf. Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38), the evangelists refer to Joseph as Mary’s husband and to Mary as his wife (cf. Mt 1:16, 18-20, 24; Lk 1:27; 2:5). And while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary’s marriage to Joseph, because juridically Joseph’s fatherhood depends on it” (No. 7). The Pope adds in his 1996 audience, “Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage.”
The Church’s liturgy reflects this belief in the true marriage of Mary and Joseph. Four of the Eucharistic Prayers used at Mass refer to “blessed Joseph, her Spouse.”
For us Catholics, then, there is no question about the validity of the marriage. In the culture Jesus grew up, it was crucial for him to have a legal father and Mary a legal husband. And God’s grace assuredly allowed Mary and Joseph to live a celibate life together.
Admittedly theirs was a special marriage. But then, the Child they provided a home for was special too. I pray that you cultivate your interest in the Holy Family and the Catholic faith.