A couple of weeks ago on Spanish Sunday morning television, Sister Lucia Caram discussed a topic that can’t have failed to raise eyebrows over the weekend breakfast table: that of the Virgin Mary’s sex life. The Argentinian-born nun suggested that ‘I think Mary was in love with Joseph and that they were a normal couple – and having sex is a normal thing’, before going on to discuss the Church’s ‘poor attitude’ to sexuality:
I think the Church…has swept it a bit under the carpet…It was something that was considered dirty or hidden.
The Dominican nun went on to say that she believed the expression and act of sex, despite any institutional denial, ‘to be a blessing.’
Her comments almost instantly caused huge controversy. An online campaign was launched to have her sacked, death threats were made, and within days her local bishop was forced to respond with a statement echoing the more familiar dogma of the Mother of God’s perpetual virginity. By the following Wednesday, Sister Caram made a public statement of apology for any offense caused, noting that some, ‘thirsting for vengeance and driven by hatred’ had interpreted her comments in an ‘ideological and perverse’ way.
Perhaps it is partly due to the fact that it was a nun making these statements that made people so upset. She is, after all, defined by not only her intense piety, but by the image of her chosen life. But while Sister Caram’s remarks might be controversial – although not as shocking as some have portrayed them – and despite the uproar that followed the comments of this politically engaged, self-proclaimed ‘pain in the arse nun’, she is by no means the only one to have speculated about the details of the marital relationship between Mary and Joseph. Ideas about sex and purity within marriage, and especially in relation to the model of the Holy Family, have been contested and debated for centuries, always echoing the Church’s discomfort and understanding of sexuality.
From the Church fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries, Mary and Joseph’s marriage has been the topic of intense theological wrangling. Did Mary, understood as early as the second century to have given birth to Jesus without having sex, remain a virgin throughout her marriage to Joseph? 1 And if this was the case, does that make their own union illegitimate in the eyes of God?
St Jerome known for his extreme aversion to all pleasures of the flesh, saved particular scorn for sex, even within marriage:
I praise marriage, but it is because [it] gives me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.
For him, Mary and Joseph, in dedicating their virginity to God, meant that their marriage, while chaste, was not only legitimate, but an unwaveringly pure model.
His contemporary, Jovinian, disagreed, instead promoting an idea of purity within the vows of marriage and, by extension, the marriage bed. By arguing that Mary and Joseph went on to have children after Christ’s virginal birth, Jovinian attempted to establish marriage as something of a holy bond, not incompatible with a truly pious life. But it would be St Augustine’s Jerome-inspired views of Mary and Joseph’s nuptials as an exceptional ideal, bound by consent and totally without consummation, that won out, influencing Church doctrine on the subject of the Holy Family for centuries.
For those who married, or were married, piety often required a negotiation of this aspect of impurity. Two famous examples of chaste medieval marriage are at two very separate ends of the spectrum. Edward the Confessor allegedly announced his commitment to life-long virginity on his wedding night, and he died some 41 years later childless, and heir-less in 1066. The marriage of Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century English mystic, stands in stark contrast to this. She was the mother of fourteen children before she finally convinced her husband to begin a celibate life in accordance with her increasing religious expressionism.
For women, particularly those who were or would become nuns, the understandings of pure, sinless marriage were tied up directly with expressions of their faith. Women from the fourth to the fourteenth century underwent experiences where they would ‘marry’ Christ in mystical unions. In a vision of Catherine of Siena, after giving her a wedding ring – which she would later claim was his foreskin – Christ said ‘…keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven’.
Often intensely intimate in imagery – Teresa of Avila talks about how Christ ‘plunged into her heart’ a golden spear that left her ‘utterly consumed with a great love’ – these mystical marriages were obviously chaste, but deeply engaged with ideas of purity and what marriage means.
In light of this, then, Sister Lucia Caram’s comments about the potential for a sexual relationship to have existed within Mary and Joseph’s marriage appear to fit within a twenty-first-century discussion that has been ongoing for millennia. While sex, even within marriage, might never be the most comfortable topic for public debate, to engage with ideas of it are not only interesting, but actually, traditional.
Dr Elizabeth Goodwin is a historian of medieval women religious. She did a PhD at the University of Sheffield examining the transformation of communities of English nuns during the Reformation. She is currently conducting research into the life and works of Caritas Pirckheimer. You can find her on twitter at @.
Image: The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena by Giovanni di Paolo, circa 1460 [via Wikicommons].
- The doctrine of the Incarnation holds that Jesus was ‘made flesh’ and conceived within the womb of Mary while she was a virgin. Mary’s purity is so vital to Catholic belief that it is held that her own conception was free from the taint of original sin – she may have been conceived through the act of sex, but God kept her soul ‘immaculate’. ↩