Saint Peter Chrysologus († ca. 450)

Saint Peter Chrysologus, a Doctor of the Church, was Archbishop of Ravenna. The chronology of his life is not well known. He became archbishop sometime during the pontificate of Sixtus III (432–440), and his sermons date from the period of his bishopric, but cannot be dated more precisely (thus between 432 and his death around 450).

While his contemporary, St. Leo the Great, built his Marian thought around the divine maternity, St. Peter founded his on Mary’s fruitful virginity: “the expression Virgo concipit, Virgo parturit, Virgo permanet becomes the heart of his Mariology. On this phrase the bishop of Ravenna bases all of his Marian thought.”[1] One example of this expression is in the following quotation:

Where are they who think that the Virgin’s conceiving and the Virgin’s giving birth are just like those of other women? Theirs is of the earth, hers is of heaven. Hers is by divine power, theirs by human weakness. Theirs is in the passions of the flesh, hers in the tranquility of the Divine Spirit and in a human body at rest… A Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remains. Therefore the flesh is aware of power, not pain, which [flesh] in giving birth instead received an increase in integrity; it did not know the injuries of pain.[2]

The text omitted from the quotation makes it clear that “a human body at rest” is referred to the conception, not the birth. The singularity of the conception and birth is stressed in this passage, and is expressed in terms of the action of divine power (their miraculous character) and the absence of pain.

The reference to an increase in integrity is interesting in that it is reminiscent of what Lumen gentium 57 will say: the birth of Our Lord “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” In the passage we are examining, the increase in integrity is referred specifically to the flesh, perhaps in the sense that the birth shows this integrity will be protected even miraculously. Elsewhere, Chrysologus speaks of the birth as sanctifying the virgin and increasing her virtues.[3]

In his 1992 allocution at Capua, St. John Paul II quoted a very interesting text of this doctor:

Mary [Magdalene] came to the tomb, she came to the womb of the resurrection, she came to the birth of life, so that Christ would be born a second time from the sepulchre of faith, he who had been begotten from a womb of flesh; and him whom clausa virginitas had brought to this life, the clausum sepulchrum would return to eternal life. It is characteristic of divinity to leave the virgin sealed after birth; it is also characteristic of divinity to go out from the sealed tomb with the body.[4]

The Pontiff selected this text for the extraordinary clarity with which it connects the birth of Christ with his resurrection from the dead, and sees in each a proof of His divinity.[5] We can also note that the comparison between the closed sepulcher and the closed womb expresses Mary’s bodily integrity in childbirth quite clearly.

When the bishop of Ravenna says that the sealed womb and sealed tomb are characteristic of divinity (divinitatis insigne), he does so for a very specific reason: at the time, the Arianism of Ulfilas († ca. 382) was an enduring threat to his diocese. Chrysologus is therefore arguing that these miracles demonstrate the true divinity of the Word.[6] Because the bishop has this purpose in mind, he accents the miraculous nature of the birth so much that one could lose sight of what this birth has in common with others; he is trying to demonstrate Christ’s divinity rather than His humanity. Since one argues from what is more evident to what is less evident, this also tells us that the birth of Christ utero clauso was more readily accepted in his diocese than Christ’s divinity.

Pope Saint Leo the Great (440–461)

With St. Leo the Great, the virgin birth entered the Magisterium. During his papacy, the Monophysite heresy reared its head in the person of the archimandrite Eutyches.[7] St. Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople, resisted him and had him deposed, but Eutyches managed to gain the support of the Patriarch of Alexandria, and Flavian needed help. In 449, St. Leo sent him a doctrinal letter (the “Tome”) declaring the Catholic faith in this matter. Although Eutyches prevailed at the Robber Council of Ephesus (449) and St. Flavian was martyred, matters turned out differently at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451). After St. Leo’s letter had been read at the latter council, “the most reverend bishops cried out: This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles… Peter has spoken thus through Leo.”[8] The Council formally adhered to the Tome of Leo on October 17.[9] In this highly authoritative Magisterial document, Pope Leo writes: “he was conceived of the Holy Spirit within the womb of the Virgin Mother, who gave birth to him in such a way that her virginity was undiminished, just as she had conceived him with her virginity undiminished.”[10] This is indeed the faith of the Fathers, as we have seen.

Shortly afterward, he writes, “fruitfulness was given to the Virgin by the Holy Spirit; but the genuinity of the body was taken from her body.”[11] He makes an important distinction: the fact that the Virgin could not naturally beget a son without a man does not mean that the son conceived does not come from her nature.

Earlier, in a Christmas homily (December 25, 441), he declared: “by divine power it was brought about that a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained.”[12] He seems to be echoing St. Augustine. He goes on to consider the appropriateness, or even the necessity, of the Lord’s having a virgin mother:

Incorruption, in being born, had to maintain the initial integrity of the Mother, and the infused power of the Divine Spirit had to preserve the seal of purity and hospice of sanctity that had been found pleasing. This power had established to raise the fallen, to restore the broken, and by overcoming the allurements of the flesh to bestow on us in abundant measure the power of chastity: in order that the virginity which in others cannot be retained in child-bearing, might be attained by them at their second birth.[13]

If there was any doubt as to the idea of virginity behind the Pontiff’s words in the Tome, these words should make it clear: they express a comprehensive concept of virginity with both physical and spiritual aspects. In its former aspect, it cannot be retained by others in childbirth; in its latter aspect it can be attained by them via spiritual rebirth. Virginity consists in integrity or incorruption, which, like aphtharsia in Greek, can be both physical and moral/spiritual. But St. Leo’s conception of virginity or incorruption does not stop at the moral and physical qualities of creatures. Incorruption is also a divine attribute, and thus God is incorruption itself.[14] Moreover, the true man born of the Virgin is also true God, and thus it is to Incorruption that she gives birth. How could the birth of Incorruption corrupt in any way when He has taken our nature with the express purpose of restoring the corrupted?

Pope Saint Hormisdas (514–523)

The doctrine of the incorrupt birth is repeated in the Magisterium of Pope St. Hormisdas. In the doctrinal letter Inter ea quae to the Byzantine Emperor Justin I (518–527), the Pontiff expresses doctrines regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation. In treating the latter, he makes reference to the virginal birth of Christ: He who before time was the Son of God, was born in time “in the manner of a human being, opening the Mother’s womb by his birth and yet not damaging the virginity of the Mother by the power of the Godhead. The mystery was entirely worthy of the birth of God, whereby he who brought about conception without human seed should keep the birth from violation (corruptione).”[15] The edition reproduced by Migne reads “not opening (non aperiens) the mother’s womb,” but this is an editor’s correction without any manuscript support.[16] It is time to stop quoting the outdated edition.

The text must instead be explained as it stands, and this does not present any great difficulty. The Pontiff is simply repeating the affirmation of Luke 2:23, in the sense that the Son of God was Mary’s firstborn. If the power of God is necessary to avoid taking away the mother’s virginity, then virginity must have a physical aspect that can only be preserved in childbirth by a miracle. The references to the power of God and to a mystery of God being born make it clear that this is not a purely natural birth. Rather, it is a true human birth (born “in the manner of a human being”), but realized in a mode accessible only to divine omnipotence. Such a birth — one without corruption — was truly worthy of God, who, as St. Leo said, is Incorruption.

Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (†527)

St. Fulgentius of Ruspe writes that Christ was “truly conceived and born according to the flesh, inasmuch as the Virgin, in an indescribable manner, conceived and bore the God of heaven, and remained inviolate, Virgin and Mother, … because She neither had nor desired any commerce of man but, while retaining a virginity both of mind and body, She received from Him whom She was about to conceive and bear the gift of uncorrupted fruitfulness and of fruitful integrity.”[17] Here is another in the chain of witnesses to the virginitas in partu in the traditional sense. St. Fulgentius sees no contrast between Mary’s inviolate virginity and Christ’s being truly born. He affirms that Mary’s virginity is a matter both of the soul (mentis) and of the body. He does not reduce virginity to either aspect.

Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem (†638)

Shortly before the dogma was defined in the West, we have another important witness to it in the East, in the letter that St. Sophronius of Jerusalem drew up in a synod in the same year he became patriarch of that city (634). This letter is included in the acts of the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681). In it, he explains at length the doctrine of the two energies or operations in Christ against the Monoenergist compromise (between Chalcedon and Monophysitism) that Sergius I of Constantinople (†638) had proposed. Among the “sublime and preeminent indications” of Christ’s divinity, St. Sophronius mentions “His being conceived without seed, … the undespoiling (aphthoros) birth, the immaculate (achrantos) virginity, which was unblemished before the birth, during the birth, and after the birth.”[18] Like many other Fathers, Sophronius sees Mary’s perpetual virginity as a sign of Her Son’s divinity. He uses the classic triple formula (before, during, after) of the perpetual virginity, in the same context of opposing Monothelitism in which this doctrine would be defined fifteen years later. The definition will not use that formula, but it will use the adverb corresponding to the adjective that Sophronius uses to qualify the birth.

Pope Saint Martin I (649–655) and the Lateran Synod of 649

The Lateran Synod (or Council) of 649 was convoked by Pope St. Martin I against Monothelitism. Among the canons promulgated is the one which defined Mary’s perpetual virginity as a dogma:

Can. 3. If anyone does not, following the holy Fathers, confess properly and truly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived really and truly, without human seed, from the Holy Spirit, God the Word himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.[19]

The irreconcilability of this canon with novel interpretations of the virgin birth is implicitly acknowledged by the innovators’ various attempts to free themselves of its authority. Rahner pointedly wrote that the synod of 649 was not an ecumenical council and called it a local synod.[20] Jean Galot simply passed over the fact of the dogmatic definition in a silence that can hardly be accidental.[21]

Although the Lateran Synod of 649 was not an ecumenical council, “its subsequent reception brings it very close to this level. Moreover, when the Supreme Pontiff during a synod proposes a doctrine of the faith under anathema, and furthermore as a condition sine qua non of communion with the Roman Church, it will be difficult to not consider it a solemn definition ex cathedra.”[22] Indeed, after the synod, the pope took personal responsibility for its canons and promulgated them with the full force of his apostolic authority.[23] The tenor of this promulgation can be gathered from Michael Hurley’s paraphrase of two of the pope’s letters:

We have, he says, convened a Council; in its presence and with its agreement we have anathematized the heretics with their impious doctrines, we have confirmed the teaching of the Apostles, of the holy Fathers and of the five general councils which is the law of the Catholic Church, we have declared the true faith for which the pious and orthodox will not only leave father and mother but also give their very lives, and now we are sending you who dwell throughout the whole wide world notice of all that we have accomplished in synod for the Catholic Church that, following our example and agreeing with the holy Fathers and with us, you may avoid the taint of heresy and the pains of eternal damnation.[24]

After St. Martin paid with exile and death for using his apostolic authority so boldly without the emperor’s consent, his immediate successors were quiet about the matter. But when in better times the Third Council of Constantinople convened (680–681), Pope St. Agatho presented the canons of the Lateran Synod to it as final, infallible, and of faith, apparently attributing their authority to Pope Martin personally.[25]

It might well be asked what the virgin birth has to do with Monothelitism.[26] Trying to interpret the text in the context of this heresy, Hurley argued that “incorruptibiliter eam genuisse” is not an affirmation of the virginitas in partu, but of Christ’s conception without original sin.[27] But we have seen that aphthorōs gennaō is a way of expressing the virginitas in partu that we can trace back at least as far as the fourth century. Aldama convincingly refuted Hurley, and nothing more was heard of his theory.

Why was the doctrine defined on this occasion? As Aldama explains, Theodore, bishop of Pharan, was denounced at the synod as the initiator of the heresy (later it became clear that Sergius was the real initiator). Theodore taught that Christ had only one operation (energeia), a divine one, in virtue of which He had a control over His body far greater than mere human beings do. This control enabled Him to move weightlessly (aonkōs) and incorporeally (asōmatōs) in the virgin birth, when He walked on water, and after the Resurrection. To St. Martin, this sounded like Docetism, and, in an allocution to the synod, he hastened to reaffirm that the body of Christ retained all of the natural qualities of a human body even during these episodes. If He existed incorporeally and had no extension, what miracle would there be in not destroying Mary’s virginity in His birth?[28] The miracle was thus that the natural qualities of Christ’s body did not produce their natural effects. The definition was needed to reaffirm the true sense of the mystery against the interpretation of the heretic Theodore.[29]


In this period, the dogma progressively enters the Magisterium, leading up to the definition of 649. St. Peter Chrysologus points to the connection between the virgin birth and the exit from the closed tomb, each of which is a mark of the divinity of Christ. St. Fulgentius makes it explicit that Mary’s virginity is a matter of both soul and body. Popes St. Leo the Great, St. Hormisdas, and St. Martin I all show a preference for expressing the quality of the birth in terms of incorruption, a term with a long history and with reference also to the physical aspect of virginity. We find this same term in St. Sophronius. St. Leo connects the miraculous preservation of the Virgin physically incorrupt with the power of the God-man, Incorruption itself, to restore those morally corrupted by sin. 



[1]     Bogusław Kochaniewicz, “La Vergine Maria nei sermoni di san Pietro Crisologo” (STD thesis, Pontificia Facultas Theologiae Marianum, 1998), 102.


[2]     St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 117,3 (CCL 24A:710). Trans. Jurgens 2177 through “a Virgin she remains,” then mine.

      In another sermon, the doctor stresses the prodigious character of the birth: “cesset ergo inanis philosophiae labor…” (Sermon 148,1; CCL 24B:917). St. Paschasius Radbertus, De partu virginis (CCM 56C:79) quotes this sermon twice.


[3]     Cf. St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 142,7 (CCL 24B:865); Sermon 140 ter, 2 (CCL 24B:855). Chrysologus’s conviction that the Virgin was sanctified during the birth is founded on the divinization of the human nature in Christ and on the recapitulation in Mary of Eve’s corruption: cf. Kochaniewicz, “La Vergine Maria nei sermoni di san Pietro Crisologo,” 110.


[4]     St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 75,3 (CCL 24A:460). Trans. ORE June 10, 1992, p. 13.


[5]     Cf. ORE ibid.


[6]     Cf. Kochaniewicz, “La Vergine Maria nei sermoni di san Pietro Crisologo,” 103.


[7]     Cf. the account of the Monophysite crisis in Warren H. Carroll, The History of Christendom, vol. 2 (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2004), 105–31.


[8]     Eduard Schwartz, ed., Concilium Universale Chalcedonense, Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, tomus 2, vol. 1, pars 2 (Berolini: W. de Gruyter, 1933), 81 [277] (Actio III): Trans. NPNF 2 14:259a.


[9]     Carroll, The History of Christendom, 2:118.


[10]    Ep. 28,2, DH 291.


[11]    Ibid. Trans. Jurgens 2182. The first half of this statement is somewhat reminiscent of a statement of St. John Damascene that Scotus quotes in the distinction we will be considering in chapter 11: “the Holy Spirit gave her at once the power to receive and to beget”  (De fide orthodoxa 3,2, here quoted from Bl. John Duns Scotus, Four Questions on Mary, trans. Allan Bernard Wolter [Saint Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 2000], 97).


[12]    St. Leo the Great, Sermon 22,2: “ut uirgo conceperit, virgo pepererit, virgo permanserit” (CCL 138:92–93). For the date of the sermon, see the introduction of the editor (Antoine Chavasse, CCL 138:clxxix). Trans. partially from Jurgens 2194.


[13]    St. Leo the Great, Sermon 22,2 (CCL 138:93). Trans. NPNF 2 12:130b, modified to correspond to the critical edition. The idea of incorruption being born can also be found in St. Leo’s contemporary St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 148 bis, 2: “Nascitur ab intacta femina Christus, quia fas non erat, ut … per corruptionem incorruptio nasceretur” (CCL 24B:924).


[14]    To put this idea in Scotistic terms, incorruption is a perfectio simpliciter simplex, and God is incorruption existing in its infinite mode.


[15]    St. Hormisdas, Letter Inter ea quae (Ep. 79 in PL; no. 236 in the Collectio Avellana), 10–11 (CSEL 35/2:720). Trans. DH 368, which uses this edition.


[16]    See PL 63:514 for “non aperiens,” CSEL 35/2:720 for the manuscript evidence.


[17]    St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, Ep. 17,12: (CCL 91A:571). Trans. Jurgens 2242. See also Ep. 17,9.


[18]    St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, Epistula synodica ad Sergium Constantinopolitanum in Rudolf Riedinger, ed., Concilium Universale Constantinopolitanum Tertium, Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, series 2, vol. 2, pars 1 (Berolini: W. de Gruyter, 1990), 452. Trans. Jurgens 2289.


[19]    Lateran Synod of 649, canon 3 (DH 503).


[20]    Cf. Karl Rahner, “Virginitas in Partu: Ein Beitrag Zum Problem der Dogmenentwicklung und Überlieferung,” in Schriften Zur Theologie, vol. 4 (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1960), 178–80. In particular, he writes, “a local synod (Partikularsynode) repeats incidentally the doctrine of the perpetual virginity, against the background of the interpretation then current, without wishing to give a doctrinal definition of the exact content of this interpretation”  (Rahner, 179–80; trans. Karl Rahner, “Virginitas in Partu: A Contribution to the Problem of the Development of Dogma and of Tradition,” in Theological Investigations, trans. Kevin Smyth, vol. 4 [Baltimore, MD: Helicon, 1966], 140). For Roschini’s denunciation of Rahner’s equivocation on the sense of “content” here, see p. 104 in the book from which this extract is drawn.


[21]    Jean Galot, Maria, la donna nell’opera di Salvezza, trans. Nevia Corradini, 2nd ed. (Roma: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2005), 158–59. Hauke writes that the fact “viene taciuto”  (Manfred Hauke, Introduzione alla mariologia (Lugano: Eupress FTL, 2008), 162), and indeed, it is hard to imagine that he thought it unimportant or that it simply slipped his mind.


[22]    Hauke, Introduzione alla mariologia, 161–62.


[23]    Cf. Hurley, “Born Incorruptibly,” 217–20.


[24]    Hurley, 220–21.


[25]    Cf. Hurley, 222–23.


[26]    For the background that follows, cf. José Antonio de Aldama, Virgo Mater: estudios de teología patrística (Granada: Facultad de Teología, 1963), 101–27. Following Aldama’s lead, the canon was treated at length by Félix López Lozano, Permaneciendo en la gloria de su virginidad, derramó sobre el mundo la luz eterna: Estudio sobre la virginitas in partu en la Teología y el Magisterio de la segunda mitad del siglo XX ([Santander, Spain], 2012), 238–53.


[27]    Cf. Hurley, “Born Incorruptibly,” 229–36. Hurley recognized the virginitas in partu as a dogma on the basis of later Magisterium.


[28]    Cf. Rudolf Riedinger, ed., Concilium Lateranense a. 649 Celebratum, Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, series 2, vol. 1 (Berolini: W. de Gruyter, 1984), 124–28.


[29]    Cf. Aldama, Virgo Mater, 119–21.