In recent years the perpetual virginity of Mary has, like a number of articles of faith, become a subject of some debate in certain circles. We often hear it questioned by reference to the phrase "the brothers and sisters" of Jesus, even by Catholics, a phrase easily explained which does not mean Our Lady had other children. And today I would have to wonder how many Catholics today actually believe (as we are required) that Our Lady was a virgin when she conceived Jesus and remained a virgin throughout her life.
People doubt this doctrine for a number of reasons, one of them being the bewilderment that someone could actually live without having sex regularly. In much the same way as priestly celibacy is attacked, it is asserted by many today that if someone is not having sex regularly, then there is something wrong with them - it is unhealthy not to have sex. This ridiculous position is used as the foundation for the widespread belief that celibacy is the main cause of child abuse. Of course we know that most abuse is committed by non celibate people, parents included. It is impossible, some may say, for her to have remained a virgin and be healthy and normal. Anyway according to Jewish custom, it would have been weird, indeed perhaps even sinful, for Mary not to have fulfilled her duty as a wife.
Another reason for the disbelief here is a negative view of virginity. Thanks to our contemporary culture, virginity seems to be good only as a state which is to be lost, rather than as a state in itself. From as early an age as possible our society, and particularly our education systems, are preparing children to lose their virginity as quickly as possible so to become "normal" and to share in life in its fullness. Such an ideological approach to human sexuality demeans sexuality.
Reflecting on all this, I would like to refer you to a very interesting article on The New Theological Movement website which discusses the belief that Mary had made a vow of virginity - an even more controversial matter. I remember making the suggestion during a homily on a feast of Our Lady once, and after Mass I got a telling off from a middle-aged lady whom I suspect was a religious sister (she had all the dowdiness of nuns who have thrown off their habits). The lady was appalled that could make such a suggestion, and when I explained, she dismissed me: she wasn't very open to consider the evidence.
I am no stranger to the argument presented in the article, in fact I have often used it myself and even preached it - I think the Scripture is clear. The words of Our Lady to St Gabriel are very unusual - if she was to marry Joseph and have a normal sex life, why was it so strange that she should conceive a child? After all the Annunciation is very like the annunciations to Samson's mother, Hannah and Zachariah - it is only when Our Lady asks how it is to happen that she, and we, discover that her child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. We can certainly argue that Our Lady had no intention to engaging in sexual relations with Joseph, which leads us to consider that she had made a vow of virginity.
Now our scholars will balk at that, perhaps dismiss it as pious piffle which has no basis in fact. Why? Because the Jews did not do that - they did not take vows of virginity - it would have been a scandal - they had to marry. The same argument has been used to prove that St Paul had been married, even though he makes no reference to it and there is not a shred of evidence that he had a wife. I remember reading a hilarious explanation for why Paul did not mention a wife and children in the autobiographical sections of his epistles. You see they died in very tragic circumstances and Paul was so distraught he could not speak about them. That scholarly scrap is offered by renowned Pauline expert, Fr Jerome Murphy O'Connor - when I read it, he plummeted in my estimation and I read him now with a large vat of salt to hand. The argument that all Jews had to marry is even put forward to prove that Jesus would have married, enter stage left Mary Magdalen with massive brood of offspring.................
The Jews prized virginity, and yes, the norm was to marry and to have children - indeed barrenness was a sign of God's disfavour, while fertility was a sign of blessing. That was the norm, but then there are always exceptions to the norm, exceptions that were inspired by a form of dedication: the Nazirites and Essenes, for example. St John the Baptist was celibate, and so was Jesus. Why not Mary too? Seeing as the new dispensation was about to begin, why couldn't God inspire people to embrace this consecration as a sign of the new way of life - the Christian way. All the arguments against this celibate way of life do not take into account that God may inspire this way of life for a reason, and that this way of life can be exceedingly fruitful.
We have to be open to these things. Contrary to the opinions of some scholars, sometimes the traditions which have been passed on to us are actually true, so we must not dismiss them, but listen with an open and humble ear. Let's face it, if scholars have to face up to the awful fact that Sodom and Gormorrah were destroyed by a "heat event" (aka as fire and brimstone, and smiting of an extreme kind), then we had better be open to other possibilies too.