Doing Justice to St. Joseph (Part 2)

As a Catholic, I believe that “sola scriptura” is wrong. Scripture is not sufficient by itself as a rule of Christian faith. It’s obviously wrong, too, because Scripture cannot say what counts as Scripture or not. So the Church is necessary too.

But perhaps you have tended to think of this matter along these lines: there are many things we need to believe as Christians, which are only implicit, or not even clearly stated, in Scripture. Baptism is the crucial sacrament of salvation. But infant baptism is taught only implicitly: babies presumably were baptized when households were. (see Acts 10:48) As for the foundational doctrine of the Trinity: it is simply not clearly stated in Scripture, or even in the early Fathers, as Newman never tired of pointing out. That’s why the Council of Nicea was necessary.

On this view, the Church is necessary as adding something that Scripture does not explicitly or clearly say.

But what if, in what it does say, Scripture sometimes looks misleading? Not that it is inherently misleading, but that we are prone to misunderstand it. What if, without the Church, people who relied on Scripture alone would go astray?

Without doubt, the narrative of the birth of Jesus is like this. Scripture on its own would lead us to think that St. Joseph had relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus, and even that Jesus had brothers born of Mary:

 – with its language of “first-born son” (so there were others then?, Lk. 2:7);

– “before they came together” (so they came together?, Mt. 1:18);

– “he knew her not before she had borne him a son” (then he knew her after?, 1:25);

– and “brothers” of Jesus (Jn. 7:3).

But the Church teaches clearly that this is not so. The Catechism echoes the teaching of centuries, that Mary is “ever-virgin”: “Mary ‘remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin’.” (citing St. Augustine). Joseph had no relations with her, and they had no other children. This truth is not up for grabs.

Not that the Church’s teaching just hangs there, unsupported. Many, converging lines of reasoning lead to that result.

For example, that Jesus is the only son of Mary, is designed in God’s providence to mirror the fact that he is the only-begotten son of God. You fathers and mothers who are reading this know how different the Holy Family would be if Jesus were one among many – and Joseph and Mary, like all good parents, had to raise him without showing special preference. In that case, he could not possibly have a status, in his humanity, that represents his status, in his divinity.


Or consider that Mary’s womb is rightly regarded as a “shrine” and has been called such by countless holy men and women. You will grant, I take it, that Mary’s womb is at least as holy and consecrated to God as a tabernacle. But what decent Catholic would ever contemplate taking a tabernacle from the altar and using it for his own purposes. We cannot even say what we would have to think in this regard.

And why would Joseph and Mary want to have relations anyway? They were already, in their nuptial promises and shared love of God, as united in love as anyone can be. Through her body, Mary was espoused to the Holy Spirit. It’s not as though it was for Joseph to claim or possess it. And why would they want more children to raise beyond Jesus? This would seem thoughtless and ungrateful. (Remember that children were the motive for sexual relations in traditional Jewish culture.)

As for Joseph – why would he claim Mary’s virginity for himself, so to speak, when even God did not do so? Understand that it is also Church teaching that Jesus was born without passing through the birth canal and destroying Mary’s physical integrity: those movies of Mary in painful labor are false.

On this question of Joseph’s attitude, Aquinas in the Summa can hardly restrain himself. Chesterton has a fine passage in his biography of Aquinas where he contrasts Aquinas with Luther. Aquinas he says, unlike Luther, never tried to bully someone into agreeing with him by throwing his personality around:

[Luther] was the first man who ever consciously used his consciousness or what was later called his Personality. He had as a fact a rather strong personality. Aquinas had an even stronger personality; he had a massive and magnetic presence; he had an intellect that could act like a huge system of artillery spread over the whole world; he had that instantaneous presence of mind in debate, which alone really deserves the name of wit. But it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defense of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon.

And yet, for all that, Aquinas sometimes becomes roused in spirit. “When it comes to the question of whether St. Joseph had relations with Mary, he bursts out: it would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel’s revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost” (ST III.28.3).

And this too makes much sense. Consider, as a remote analogy, how a man still innocent feels a reverent fear for his wife’s natural chastity on his wedding night. And yet the Holy Spirit is God.

But then how do we resolve those Scripture verses that seem to say the contrary? The Church has been explaining the apparent conflict since St. Jerome’s reply to Helvidius in 383 AD (click here). And if you rely on “Scripture alone” in this matter, as in others, you are liable to go not simply wrong, but gravely wrong.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.