Dear Catholic Exchange:
As the students were practicing at our Catholic school’s Christmas pageant, I heard them recite one line that said Mary was bent over in pain. Now, I am wondering, did Mary feel pain in childbirth? She was born without original sin, and I wonder if this had an impact. Our Bible study folks had a great conversation about this, and the general consensus was that she did feel pain. A seminarian in attendance told us the punishment mentioned in Genesis 3 reflects the human condition, and is not indicative of what happened to people and the earth because of the fall of Adam and Eve.
In other words, our seminarian is saying, before the fall, man worked hard in the Garden of Eden. If women were to have had children, they would have experienced much pain. The earth was already yielding brambles and thistles, etc.
Is the presence of original sin and our proclivity towards sin that we are now born with the only result of Adam and Eve's disobedience towards God? We are having a great time thinking and discussing this, but the bottom line is that we really want to know!
Hoping you can help us,
Greetings in Christ. We will address the issue of Mary’s having childbearing pain first, and then present what the Church teaches regarding the effects of original sin.
Regarding your first question, we can consider Revelation 12:1-7. This passage describes a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with 12 stars. Revelation 12:2 describes the woman as undergoing pangs of childbirth. You asked how the Church could use this passage in its defense of honoring Mary when the woman is described as having birth pangs. In other words, how can the Church reconcile its teaching that Mary didn’t experience labor pains with this passage from Revelation 12? Scripture is traditionally interpreted in four senses (please see our Faith Fact, Scripture Sense): literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. God not only teaches through words (literally), but also through the things, people, and events mentioned in scripture (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 115-19).
Hence, the woman in Revelation 12:2 has more than one meaning. On a most basic, literal level, we observe a woman, a child, and a dragon. However, the information conveyed indicates that these are Mary, Jesus, and the devil, respectively. In a spiritual sense, she is also Zion, Jerusalem, with her 12 stars, bringing forth the messianic era with the pangs of childbirth (cf. Isaiah 26:17). The woman is also the Church who gives birth to children of God (Mary herself is a figure or image of the Church). Mary is also the Mother of the Church that was born on Calvary, clearly in Mary’s pain (cf. Luke 2:34-35; Catechism, no. 766).
Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mother does not have pangs at Jesus’ miraculous birth into the world; rather, her “birth pangs” are deferred to the suffering she shares with Him on the Cross, as he is born into eternal glory. Indeed, Jesus takes up His throne only after he is glorified through His victory on Calvary. By sharing in her Son’s suffering, Mary also becomes the Mother of all His followers, i.e., the Body of Christ (Revelation 12:17), and thus the Mother of the Church. For those who argue for a more literal interpretation of Revelation 12, saying that Mary did have such labor pains, they would also have to believe that the devil was present in Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth as a dragon, ready to devour Jesus; that Jesus was swept up to heaven to safety upon His birth; and that Mary took refuge in the wilderness because of the devil’s threat. None of this, of course, is substantiated in the infancy narratives of the gospels. Given the figurative nature of the Book of Revelation, we need to rely on the God-given Magisterium to properly interpret it (Catechism, nos. 84-87).
Through the years the Church fathers have given many enriching exegeses of this passage. You may wish to consult a Catholic commentary on the Scriptures for insight into these and other interpretations. The Church teaches that the virgin birth was also a painless birth, without defining it dogmatically. However, as its inclusion in the Catechism of the Council of Trent affirms, it is a logical conclusion from the Church’s definitive teaching regarding Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth:
To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. 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 virgin birth is that Christ miraculously passed from the uterus through the vaginal opening without altering the physical state of Mary. By way of analogy, consider that light passes through a glass window without altering the window. Mary’s miraculous birth would entail the absence of pain. The absence of labor pains is a logical conclusion from Mary’s dogmatically defined Virgin Birth. In addition, Mary’s being conceived without sin spares her from the temporal effects of original sin—including the curse of labor given to Eve and her descendants.
For your further reading, we recommend a related Faith Fact on Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Note particularly the section on how Mary’s remains a virgin during the birth of Christ.
Regarding your second question, the seminarian is mistaken. Death entered human history only as a result of Adam and Eve’s original sin. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides in speaking about the consequences of original sin:
Finally, the consequences explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will ‘return to the ground,’ for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history” (no. 400, emphasis original, footnote omitted).
All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many [that is, all men] were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned. . .” (Romans 5:12, 19, Catechism no. 402; cf. nos. 396-412).
In addition, the seminarian is also mistaken regarding other aspects of man’s state before the Fall. The Catechism speaks of mankind’s having “original justice” before Adam and Eve’s original sin, which also precluded man from suffering:
By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man's life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called ‘original justice’ (no. 376, footnotes omitted).
Man’s original justice is also known as “the preternatural gifts.” Preternatural gifts are only relatively supernatural, i.e., above human nature only and which elevate human nature to that state of higher perfection that is natural to the angels. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the preternatural gifts: “He made man immortal, impassible [free from sin], free from concupiscence and ignorance, sinless, and lord of the earth.” They are contrasted with absolutely supernatural gifts, i.e., those beyond the reach of all created nature (even of the angels), and which elevate the creature to a dignity and perfection natural to God alone. These would include man ’s being able to share God’s own beatitude in heaven.
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United in the Faith,
Thomas J. Nash
Senior Information Specialist
Catholics United for the Faith
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