There's something about Mary
Over at Church of the Masses, a brouhaha flamed up over the question of whether the Blessed Mother experienced the "normal" pangs accompanying the birth of Jesus. If you're not Catholic, you automatically do not care much about something that seems like one more Catholic distraction from Christ. Even if you're Catholic, the discussion may seem arcane and impractical. For some reason, if the com box comments are any indication, the topic has aroused a strange mix of anger and indignation.
I truly don't understand why. We can't just disagree amicably? It seems to me that the discussion at Church of the Masses quickly veered from the question of Jesus' birth to the question of how the Catholic Church teaches anything at all.
My original point, imperfectly as it may have been expressed, is this:
Major premise: Catholics are required to accept all the teachings of the Church, whether dogmatically defined or taught as part of ordinary magisterial teaching.
Minor premise: The belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus miraculously -- and without the birth pangs of all other women -- is part of ordinary magisterial teaching.
Conclusion: Catholics are required to believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus without the pangs of labor.
Obviously, the rub here is the minor premise. The claim has been made that the "panglessness" of Mary at the birth of Jesus Christ is merely a pious opinion, that smart people have disagreed, and that no one should elevate a speculative viewpoint above and beyond its proper place. I did not say that the issue has been formally addressed and taught ex cathedra with the same force or gravity as, say, the Immaculate Conception or the bodily Assumption. It has not.
On the other hand, it is solidly and consistently embedded in the tradition of the Church with respect to the role of Mary in God's plan of salvation, and so present in the teaching of the Fathers. It was taught by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and by many other saints and orthodox scholars. These reliable sources provide important planks on which the teaching of the Church is built. I agree that "what some saints and scholars think" is not to be mistaken for official magisterial teaching. Many saints got some of their theological positions wrong. I said "important planks" on purpose. They are not the only ones. Much more vital are these two:
1) The Catechism of the Council of Trent, promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1566. Trent is the most dogmatic of all Ecumenical Councils. I think it's a misstep to try and parse out each document to get to a "really dogmatic statement." The whole Council is dogmatic in nature and purpose. The Catechism that resulted from its teachings was normative for the whole Church by order of Pius V and served as the primary teahcing resource for Catholicism for over 500 years.
Even the more recent (1993) Catechism of the Catholic Church does not repudiate one line of its Tridentine predecessor, which put it this way: “To Eve it was said, ‘In pain you shall bring forth children’ (Gen. 3:16). Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate, she brought forth Jesus the Son of God, without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.” (The Catechism of the Council of Trent, from English translation in Robert I. Bradley, S.J. and Eugene Kevane (eds.), The Roman Catechism, pp. 49-50)
Note that the Council fathers tell us that they have already taught this about Mary giving birth painlessly. These are not a bunch of old church ladies tossing sentimental flowers at Our Lady. The lines faithfully reflect the mind of the Roman Catholic Church -- her bishops in union with the Pope -- at the most momentous and doctrinally important Council in Church history.
One of the key biblical anchors for the issue at hand is the literal sense of Isaiah 66:7: “As the Son has been given to us without a father, so the Child has been born without a birth."
Let's say you believe that Mary cried like a mental patient as she gave birth to Jesus after the manner of all human mothers per the curse pronounced in Gen 3, how do you interpret Isaiah here? This is one of the most explicit messianic prophecies. To what is he referring?
Here is St. Gregory of Nyssa's answer: "Just as she who introduced death into nature by her sin was condemned to bear children in suffering and travail, it was necessary that the Mother of life, after having conceived in joy, should give birth in joy as well. No wonder that the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, O full of grace!’ (Lk 1:28). With these words he took from her the burden of that sorrow which, from the beginning of creation, has been imposed on birth because of sin.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Song of Songs 13; PG 44, as quoted in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 158, before 397 AD) Back to Augustine: “In conceiving you were all pure, in giving birth you were without pain.” (St. Augustine, Sermone de Nativitate)
The lack of pain is directly related to Mary’s virginity during the birth of Christ. Here is the Universal Doctor, Thomas Aquinas: “Whether Christ was born without His Mother suffering? I answer that, the pains of childbirth are caused by the infant opening the passage from the womb. Now it has been said above that Christ came forth from the closed womb of His Mother, and, consequently, without opening the passage. Consequently there was no pain in that birth, as neither was there any corruption; on the contrary, there was much joy therein for that God-Man ‘was born into the world,’ according to Is. 35:1,2: ‘Like the lily, it shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise.’” (Summa Theologica, part III, q 35, art 6) 2 III.
2) There is an old Catholic principle: lex orandi, lex credendi, or the law of prayer is the law of belief. The Catholic Church includes the following prayer in one of the Prefaces for the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
"In your divine wisdom you planned the redemption of the human race and decreed that the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam: as she became his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, so, by a new gift of your love, she was to be a partner in his passion, and she who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church."
There it is in black and white. Think about this. What does it say about the doctrinal reliability of this teaching? Is it imaginable that the Church would require her children to PRAY these words if they're just nice thoughts that may not be true and binding on Catholics? I have no idea how you can conclude other than that this small t tradition more than merely "worthy of belief" if you're into that sort of thing. Some teachings bind Catholics to internal assent of mind and will -- such as the constant teaching against all forms of contraception -- even if not defined dogmatically.
Pope Pius XII didn't wake up on November 1, 1950 and say, "Hey, today, I think I'll define that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven!" On the contrary, this belief has been part of small t tradition of Catholic teaching about Mary since apostolic times. Pius XII defined as a dogma a doctrine Catholics have accepted from apostolic times.
Dogma is the crystalization of -- the careful polishing of -- doctrines already taught. The yet-to-be-defined dogma of Mary Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of all graces is an example. It is part of the ordinary magisterium while not yet being fomrall dogmatically defined. (Read Bishop Sheen's The World's First Love for a beautiful explication of it.)
Now, I am not equating the birth pangs issue with these more weighty teachings. Hardly. I'm bringing them up to show that we not not have to have a dogmatic note attached to a given teaching for Catholics to accept it as true.
Accepting only dogmatic definitions before one will believe something is the same game played by dissenters who accept contraception. Right?
To me, the whole birth-of-Jesus-painlessly debate is settled with the wording of the liturgical prayer. Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 25) teaches that Catholics must give religious assent of the will to all aspects of Catholic teaching, not just from the extraordinary exercise of infallible dogma.
One last observation: I doubt that Mary was sitting around Bethlehem reading a magazine when all of a sudden she looked down and there was the baby Jesus. Obviously, giving birth at nine months gestation involves human effort and some discomfort. But the curse given to the man in Gen 3 that he would have to undergo LABOR ("the sweat of your brow") and not merely WORK to provide for himself, so, too, the woman was told that childbirth would involve PAIN as a punishment for disobedience. Mary was sinless, and her virginity was perpetual, including during the event of our Lord Jesus Christ's birth.
In light of the above, if you still wish to say that Mary underwent the everyday experience of childbirth, then all I can say is (no, not anathema sit!).....okidoki, then!