Mary: Really Married

Dear Grace:
You pointed out in a recent column that Mary was a perpetual virgin. If this is so, then how is it that her marriage to Joseph can be understood to have been a valid marriage? I have always thought that the Church requires consummation for the bond to be sacramental and that non-consummation is grounds for annulment. Entering a marriage with heart and mind opposed to children is grounds for annulment, is it not?

You pose some interesting questions, but there are errors, however, in your understanding of the canonical prescriptions regarding the validity of the sacramental marriage bond. Before we address those, let us say at the onset that the sacramental system, as observed and practiced in the Catholic Church today, was initially established by Jesus Christ himself and therefore came after the marriage of Joseph and Mary. What do we mean by this?

The Church declares and teaches that Christian marriage is a sacrament (an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence). It was at the wedding at Cana that Jesus elevated or raised marriage, which had already existed, to the level of a sacrament, thus showing that marriage would from then on be a sign of his presence and a mirror of the love he had for his bride, the Church (CCC #1613).

It is clear, then, that Joseph and Mary were not bound by current canonical law at the time of their marriage. But even if they had been, we must surely understand that they were a couple like no other. Is this not evident by the mere fact that the angel Gabriel announced to both of them that the child to be conceived in Mary’s womb would be the Son of the Most High? Mary and Joseph said yes to God’s offer freely. They were not forced into it (Luke 1: 26-38, Matthew 1: 18-25).

Upon consulting with Dr. William E. May, moral theologian at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, regarding some key issues brought up in your questions, he explains them in the following way: “It is consent that establishes marriage, and it is a valid and sacramental marriage if the persons giving consent are baptized. The vow of totally and freely giving themselves to one another is what constitutes the true essence of marriage. This consent to marriage implies that they also consent to their right to the marital act, which literally makes husband and wife to be ‘one flesh.’ Marriage is consummated by the marital act, one in which husband and wife give themselves to each other totally (holding nothing back) in, as canon law says, ‘a human way,’ that is, a morally upright way, one open to both the gift of life and to love” (canon 1057 §1, §2; 1061 §1).

Dr. May continues by making it clear that “the marital act is not simply sex between persons who happen to be married. For example, if one of the spouses forces sex on the other, despite that person's reasonable desires and wishes, it is not a true marital act and would not consummate marriage. Similarly, it follows that when a couple uses artificial contraception, closed to the gift of life, it would not be a true marital act and would not consummate marriage.”

He further adds that “the Church claims the power to dissolve non-consummated marriages, even sacramental ones. Most marriages, of course, are consummated, but if the spouses freely and mutually choose to live a marital life without exercising their right to the marital act [meaning they would have no sex], that would be morally acceptable.” Essentially, they would agree to live together as brother and sister in the Lord.

We should also point out that no marriage is ever considered invalid unless established as such (canon 1060), usually after the couple separates. Joseph and Mary remained faithful to each other and to God for the duration of their entire lives. One could never say that their marriage was invalid or that Mary’s perpetual virginity was an impediment to her marriage to her earthly husband. On the contrary — the marriage imaged in the Holy Family is a model for the whole world of the role and place that God should have in every human family. The marriage of Joseph and Mary exemplifies for us so beautifully what this sacrament truly is — a union of love established in freedom between three persons — husband, wife, and God.

© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reproduce this article, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

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