The Virgin Birth and the Marital Act:Shedding Light on Contemporary Confusion

Editorial FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

The BBC’s four part drama Nativity, screened in the lead up to last Christmas, was well dramatised. It incorporated some important theological truths as well as a reverence for the clear divinity of the baby in the manger. The Archbishop of Westminster’s strong endorsement was just.

Yet the first episode ended with a depiction of the Annunciation in which Our Lady did not actually articulate her fiat. She never spoke the words; rather she agrees to close her eyes and then, as she tells Joseph in a later episode, accepts “what God had done” to her. Thus in this presentation it is not at all clear that God’s plan entailed Mary’s supreme and sovereign free consent to cooperate with the conception of Jesus before the Holy Spirit overshadowed her.

In defending his interpretation the screenplay writer erroneously argued that the Gospel writers, after all, were writing “200 years” after the event, and then proceeded to confuse the virginal conception with the “immaculate conception”. Despite the BBC’s laudable attempt to be fairly faithful to the Gospels they certainly don’t hold to the Christian affirmation that “the Father of mercies willed that the incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother” [Catechism, 488]. It was through her intentional receptivity that her womb was completed – so that our similarly receptive souls and bodies might be completed and saved by the Word made flesh. As our current Truth Will Set You Free meditation on Mary’s title “Mother of God” concludes, “so fundamental isthe cooperation of her whole person, womb and will.”

The Virgin Birth and Creation

Edward Holloway offered a particularly compelling theological rationale for these truths. He interpreted St John’s apocalyptic vision of The Woman in the pangs of birth, clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet and the twelve stars, as representing the fullness of the universe, crowning her head. Catholic tradition, with good reason, has interpreted this woman as our Lady. The vision places Mary at the centre of planet Earth and at the centre of the universe. And she is bringing forth the Christ-child, Himself, in Holloway’s theology, the centre and completion of creation. For Holloway, the central moment of all space-time is the virginal conception of Our Lord. At this moment Creation is completed by the Creator, who actually comes into His creation personally. This is to fulfilthe original purpose of creation. As such all other cosmic phenomena flow from this moment at Nazareth, ontologically that is, clearly not chronologically.

Creation then is built around its cornerstone: God completing the edifice of space and time that is the material cosmos by entering that sacred space that is the womb of Mary, completing her maternal potential while preserving her virginal exclusivity, and through this Mystery God can enter and complete the spiritual space of our own hearts, which are also made for Christ. The fiat of God in creating is a free decision that determines the amazing unity which is the physical cosmos, which is always and everywhere utterly dependent upon this divine determination. At the foundation and heart of this divine fiat, and identical with it, is God's determination of the womb of Mary so that He may become Man. The womb, therefore, becomes the means by which the Creator can trulytake to Himself the nature of the creature, using the same means by which this creaturely nature is formed.

But for Holloway this can also be looked at the other way around. The creature is formed in the same way as the Incarnate nature of Christ so that we may be aligned on Him. The identity of human nature and of every human being flows from the human nature of Christ, for we were "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians) and He is "the first-born of creation" (Colossians).

So it is that we are also formed in the womb of woman, for every woman has the power to minister life from God. For the creative and salvific decree of God also includes the delegation of his spiritual powers of intelligent and free activity. We have a certain power over the physical realm, for good or evil, for development or destruction. And this delegated power extends even to the creation of other human beings. We are truly co-creators in all that we do, but most especially in the pro-creation of new persons, called indeed to be children of God.

Again, this flows from the Incarnation. Christ's conception -in all its facets across ecclesial, sacramental history - alone of all human conceptions, is not subject to the determination of man, for other human conceptions are subject to this conception. We humans find our source and summit, our purpose and fulfilment in Him. Given His onto-logical primacy, in his uncreated Personality and his created body and soul, it would be il-logical, in the deepest sense of the term (i.e. contrary to the Logos), if the conception of the Creator's human nature were subject to that creaturely power of co-creation by which new creatures are brought into being, for this is a fundamental aspect of human procreation.

This creaturely procreation needs an additional factor to the power of conception, namely, the human determination which is decisive for the process. And it must be a power which can be added to the conceiving power which receives such determination and forms the human nature of new beings. The conceiving power is that of the womb of woman. The male power determines the womb of woman in the creaturely act of procreation to create new human persons. However, at the moment of the Incarnation the male is not present and it is God Himself who determines the potential of the womb by the by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is therefore to be a virginal conception,.

Thus the pattern of human pro-creation flows from the pattern of the virginal conception which is the completion of Creation. The very division of the sexes between determining male and determined female flows from the fact that God is to become man. So the male, who is not necessary for the virginal conception because he is superseded by God whose determining power he ministers in the sexual act, is therefore necessary for the procreation by which new human persons are created through the initiative of other men. Ultimately sex is for Christ, and the heart of it all is the Virgin Birth.

Confusion Over the Marital Act

This insight concerning male and female has a particular resonance with insights emerging from an important Catholic morality debate that has been raging in recent years, and which reached new levels of passion in the lead up to last Christmas. A certain Fr Martin Rhonheimer, known for accusing opponents of "physicalism", has himself been accused by some prominent American writers of "intentionalism" and has laid the counter charge of "coming close to slander". None of these labels would appear to stick in this debate.

The British Professor Luke Gormally has emerged as the most prominent and effective protagonist of Fr Rhonheimer, a priest of Opus Dei. Back in 2004 Rhonheimer used the prominent journal of "loyal dissent", The Tablet, to spread his novel idea that the prophylactic use of condoms in marriage might be consistent with the teaching of the 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

In responding the following year in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly Gormally highlighted a important aspect of the Catholic magisterial and jurisprudential tradition [this article was also published in Faith March 2006]. This tradition has clearly proposed that sexual intercourse which is truly the integral marital act must, as well as being deliberate, involve the man successfully giving his seed to the woman. For, as has been perennially recognised by human beings in general, this aspect of the act is that which must be chosen in order for the procreative process to be started. All the other aspects of the generative process, which may or may not be conducive to conception actually happening, are by nature those which are not deliberately enacted by theparticipants.

Thus a special status has been given to the man’s very physical “ejaculation of semen in his wife’s vagina”. For instance a male impotency to do this has been seen in the tradition as an intrinsic inability to consummate marriage, whereas its enaction is the consummation of marriage. Nothing similar has ever been accorded to any of the other biological conditions necessary for conception, such as ovulation (save, implicitly, for the woman’s physical reception of the seed into her reproductive tract.) No other biological infertility prevents the consummation of marriage.

Rhonheimer seems to ignore this key difference in his responses. His main point is to focus upon paragraph 15 of Humanae Vitae (HV) which states “the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from – provided such impediment is not directly intended.” All agree this can refer to taking the pill. But Rhonheimer, for instance on Sandro Magister’s website 21st December last, applies it to condom use. But such an application does not work because the use of a condom intrinsically impedes the nature of the act. The giving of the seed is, for the human being, the act which determines the womb of woman and thus the act by which a man intends thegenerative process. The application of the principle of “double effect” that HV 15 envisages cannot apply to such an act.

As Gormally puts it "As Fr Rhonheimer has rightly noted, 'not any intention can reasonably inform any act or behaviour: one cannot swallow stones with the intention of nourishing oneself; nor, I would add, can one" deliberately ejaculate "into a condom" with the intention of remaining open "to serve the task of transmitting human life".

This special role of the male seed implies necessary, specific and complementary roles to the spouses in a martial act. As we have seen above it is precisely this role which is necessarily absent from, as well as emerging from, the conception of Christ. Its necessity to marriage which is clearly affirmed by Catholic tradition as brilliantly brought out by Gormally, actually, in Holloway's vision, flows from the pattern of the Annunciation. This insight strengthens Gormally's point that such marital giving and receiving is the sacramental enacting of the giving of Christ himself to his Bride the Church - according for instance to the Letter to the Ephesians, "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. ... as Christ does the Church ... this mystery is a profound one" [5: 28-32].As Gormally points out, through conception marital sex founds "the reality that is called 'the domestic church'."

The Incarnation, God becoming present in and through human nature, is the exemplar and foundation of all sacramentality. This is especially true of the Annunciation wherein Christ the Bridegroom completes his mother, the first and foremost member of His Bride the Church. The virginal conception gives "profound" meaning to husband and wife, but also to male and female, as well as creation and man.


It was the Pope's controversial words on condom use outside of marriage that reignited the public dimension of the Gormally-Rhonheimer debate. A much needed clarification was published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 21 December. Crucially it maintained the basis for regarding as immoral any cooperation with condom use in the context of promiscuous sexual activity even with the risk of passing on of the HIV virus. Yet it did not seem to rule out calling such use a 'lesser evil' - a matter of on-going discussion amongst Natural Law theorists.

It is increasingly obvious that our culture, and the Church along with it, is at a crossroads - and we can't see the road signs very clearly. As ever at such moments, we need to allow the light of Christ, the Word made flesh, to shine more brightly upon our minds and hearts. We need a new and authentic development of doctrine that will allow us to see the mysteries of human sexuality and its sacred meanings more clearly so we can proclaim it to the world with greater clarity. We need to follow the pattern of Mary's fiat, which is the foundation and inspiration of our own ability to say yes to God at every stage of her life. The Word made flesh for us in the womb of Mary must be the context in which we understand every aspect of the knowing and loving of the embodied spirit thatis man.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2011