Mary and Joseph's marriage

This question came to me today in Mass, when they mentioned “the Blessed Virgin Mary and her spouse, Joseph”. First I thought about how it was odd that they said “spouse” instead of “husband”, then I thought that maybe it has to do with the fact that Mary remained a virgin, so he was not a husband in the true sense of the word.

Then I thought - why do we consider Mary and Joseph to have been truly married when they never had relations and never had any intention of having relations at the time of their marriage? This would effectively have been an intentional brother-sister type relationship at the time of the marriage, which according to my understanding of Christian marriage, is not a valid marriage. I thought that marriage must be ordered towards procreation.

Orthodox Tradition is that they were betrothed, not married.

I believe there is a type of marriage even today (requires special permission) which can be entirely void of sex. I think they are called Josephite marriages. Could have the name wrong.

In the Divine Praises Joseph is called Spouse Most Chaste. Our Lady refers to St. Joseph as Jesus’ father, “Son, did you not know your father and i have been searching for you in sorrow?” No right minded Chrisian would take this literally in all aspects. The same with "spouse’, sometimes our language struggles for the correct noun and we may use an approximation, but look to the full picture to make greater sense of what may be misunderstood as a discrepancy.


A feature of Catholic spiritual marriage, or Josephite marriage, is that the agreement to abstain from sex should be a free mutual decision, rather than resulting from impotence or the views of one party.

Spouse and husband are synonymous.

Regarding marriage, the marriage comes into existence at the exchange of consent. It is a valid marriage. It is indissoluble after consummation.

Each act of intercourse must be ordered to procreation. The couple can choose to abstain from sexual relations.

My understanding was that a couple has to be “open to children” as part of their vows in order for the marriage to be valid and sacramental. The only way for this to be true would be if the couple intends to have sex, which Mary and Joseph never intended. Otherwise it is just a convenience, either emotional or financial. My layman’s interpretation of doctrine is that this is why gay marriage cannot be sanctioned by the Church, because such a marriage is not part of the natural order of creating new life from marriage.

I understand why Mary was a virgin and the whole betrothal process that she was a part of in the culture of the times. And I know “spouse” is just another name for husband, I was only mentioning it in that it triggered the question in my mind of what a spouse/husband actually is.

How could two human beings possibly procreate their Creator ?

As an aside:

Part of what can give rise to false notions concerning the Holy Family is that some of the poorer modern biblical translations (yes - we would hear these read at Mass a lot) refer to Joseph as being “engaged” to Mary. Betrothal in Jewish law at the time of our Blessed Lord’s Incarnation was nothing like today’s concept of engagement.

When a couple was *betrothed *, they were considered married by law but not yet living together. “In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.”

Marriage was in 2 stages:

  1. Betrothal
  2. The bringing of the wife by the husband into his home.

The interval between the marriage and the living together or home-taking was about 12 months. It was shortened in the case of a widow or widower who was getting married.

Two excellent articles linked below - one on Jewish Marriage , and the other- a sermon by Cardinal Burke on the Marriage of the Virgin Mary with St Joseph. Both shed abundant light on some of the apparent paradoxes addressed, and more:

A Sermon by Cardinal Burke: On the Marriage of the Virgin Mary with St Joseph

Jewish Encylopedia ; Betrothal

Not exactly.

The couple cannot have a permanent intention against children. It is possible to marry and forego sexual relations for some spiritual good without having a permanent intention against children.

No, this is not true. A person can have no intention against children and yet give up having children for a greater spiritual good. Or they can forego relations for some period and then take up a sexual relationship-- such as St Therese’s parents who lived in a Josephite marriage for a number of years before they began a conjugal relationship.

No, not true. A couple who manifests proper intent and gives consent are REALLY married. Their marriage is not simply a “convenience”. It is a mutual sacrifice to forego relations for a greater spiritual good, for a time or indefinitely.

Partially correct. But you must be careful because you seem to be implying that a couple must have sex or must have children in order for it to be a “real” marriage and the Church has NEVER taught that at all.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Still trying to reconcile this but failing.

What I’m starting to think, especially based on the article posted about betrothal in those times, that perhaps because they were betrothed under Jewish religious law, especially since they were betrothed prior to Mary’s pregnancy, they were in a valid marriage based on the laws of their religion. And the Church considers Jewish marriages valid, of course. However, perhaps they would not be considered to be in a sacramental Christian marriage according to the Catholic Church? This theory does not seem quite right either, since obviously the Catholic Church could not exist until after Jesus was conceived. And even more so, natural law is timeless.

There you go. Now you’ve got it! :thumbsup:

Mary and Joseph weren’t in a Christian marriage since, well, their marriage occurred before the Church was founded! (We believe that Joseph passed away before Christ’s death and resurrection.) The things that you’ve mentioned in this thread are characteristics of Christian marriage.

This theory does not seem quite right either, since obviously the Catholic Church could not exist until after Jesus was conceived. And even more so, natural law is timeless.

Natural law is timeless, but ecclesiastical law only happens in the context of the Church. :wink:

I believe that Mary took ascetic vows of chastity and I believe that Joseph lent his support in cooperating with her vows or more likely he had made a vow of chastity himself. Furthermore, they were “married” in every sense of the word we give it today, except for the rights of marriage bed. Before you go nuts with objections, let me remind you that marriage isn’t defined by going to bed, rather it the will of two coming together in such a way as to be one will, the union of two forming one. We hear the promise of such a union in the Eucharist, those who eat and drink the Real Presence abide in Christ as He abides in them. It’s the only math were 1+1 = 1 where there is a gain but no loss yet the sum remains, one.

Not all vows in antiquity were deep commitments; nevertheless, failure to succeed the commitment meant spiritual ruin. Asceticism was practiced hundreds of years before Christ and still practiced today, maybe not in the same austere way as ages ago.

Mary desires a union with her Lord offering a humble love for her groom:

Do not consider me that I am brown, because the sun hath altered my color: the sons of my mother have fought against me, they have made me the keeper in the vineyards: my vineyard I have not kept. shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou liest in the midday, lest I begin to wander after the flocks of thy companions. If thou know not thyself, O fairest among women, go forth, and follow after the steps of the flocks, and feed thy kids beside the tents of the shepherds. To my company of horsemen, in Pharao’s chariots, have I likened thee, O my love. Thy cheeks are beautiful as the turtledove’s, thy neck as jewels. We will make thee chains of gold, inlaid with silver. [Canticles 1:5-10]

According to Susanna Elm, author of Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, asceticism was common. Sometimes the ascetic made vows of their physical prowess, suffering training as an athlete suffers building strength. Others made vows of abstinence, perhaps limiting food or drink, not unlike fasting. One obvious biblical example is Christ’s fasting for 40 days and 40 nights.

The virgin has illustrious models to follow: the five wise virgins of Gospel of Matthew, Mary, and the famous Thecla, heroine of the Apocryphal Acts of Paul. Moreover, her bridegroom is not swayed by superficialities: ‘Are you bereft of parents? You are not bereft of God. . . . Have courage, because the bridegroom Christ does not regard fading beauty…whether you are short or tall’ [c. Matthew 25:1-13; Aprociphal Acts of Paul 8.105- 09, Susanna Elm, `Virgins of God’: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity]

Mary and Joseph lived out her vows in the customs of Judaism dedicating their lives to God. Those who practiced a divinely inspired asceticism usually take a solemn vow in the Temple; “He who takes a solemn vow contracts a spiritual marriage with God, which is much more excellent than a material marriage” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa). Such a vow espouses Mary to God, a vow that not even the Sanhedrin can break, only Joseph can do that. The husband of a young woman had a right to cause her to break the vow. There is a proviso in the Law of Moses; the husband must object on the spot of hearing of his bride’s solemn vow to God. If the husband fails to speak out at the appropriate time, the husband’s duty was to stand aside allowing the woman to fulfill her word. This would not be difficult for a just man and especially so for St. Joseph who supported Mary in every way possible. (Sorry ladies, women didn’t get the same right of refusal as men) In our case Mary herself is the very essence of the vow becoming the spouse of God, and her earthly husband’s role becomes the very essence of manhood to assist support and provide for the family. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew, as well as The Protoevangelium of James, indicate St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary had both made such vows. Joseph acted as support for his earthly wife “Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. . . Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.” [Matthew 1:18-19] The indication that Joseph was a “just man” had cultural meaning related to the vows ascetics. Unlike some of us today who believe vows are meant to broken, being a “just man” implied that Joseph followed the Law of Moses impeccably and kept his word.

Mary’s response to Gabriel’s annunciation was a humble vow of fidelity, consistent with Temple rites of marriage. Thus, we hold the New Eve bore God’s eternal new Adam in the form of a sacrificial lamb. She carried Him across the dark seas of sin to the shores of our redemption. The Ever-Virgin Mary then is the Ark of everlasting life, the mother of our Salvation, and the Queen of Heaven; St. Joseph, the quite oarsman who rows Him into our life.


Even under today’s canon law the marriage would be regarded as valid and sacramental. The consumation of a marriage moves it from being valid and sacramental, to being valid, sacramental and indissoluble, indissoluble because the act of consumation makes them one flesh in the eyes of God and the church. It is the conjugal act that must always be open to new life.

This arrangement of an unconsummated marriage may carry on until they both agree to part of until death parts them. Remember, we do not marry in heaven, after death, as we will be like the angels.

As Joseph was visited by an angel and informed of the nature of Mary’s pregnancy and encouraged to marry Mary, we can assume he gave his consent to a unique family arrangement.

As to his attitude towards his new spouse, realising she has just born the Son of God, we could guess that he may have been a little in awe and placed in the same position, most of us would probably think a chaste marriage the best option.

As all canon law is theologically based, it would need to correspondence with, or at least not contradict their marriage. This article explains quite simply-

A couple must have the ability to engage in marital relations. It is a right of marriage. The couple, by mutual agreement, may refrain from exercising the right to conjugal relations for a time or indefinitely.

The Church doesn’t teach they “must have sex” for a marriage to be valid. Indeed the opposite, Church law clearly states the marriage is valid at the exchange of consent. They must have the ability to have relations, and indeed must engage in them should either party request it of the other.

Mary and Joseph were married according to Jewish law. Yes, validly and not sacramentally (unless Jesus baptized both of them, which certainly could have happened although it is not recorded). Mary and Joseph exchanged the right to intercourse, but did not exercise that right.

But, do not draw the conclusion that Christians cannot have a valid and sacramental marriage without consummation. They can, as long as both mutually agree to refrain from relations.

I understand how a marriage could be sacramental and valid even if not consummated - there could be a number of reasons relations are not able to occur, from sheer lack of convenience (ex. a medical emergency right after the wedding and the new spouse dying), to avoiding children for a grave reason (ex. never finding a safe enough place to live in a war-torn country). However, what I don’t understand is how it can be a marriage, at its very essence, if it begins with the understanding that both parties are committed to never engaging in sex.

There seem to be two theories from the replies here:

  1. Their marriage was valid in the sense that it occurred within the context of 1 BC Jewish religious practice, which the Church therefore recognizes as valid, but it cannot be considered a Christian sacramental marriage. OR
  2. That in fact it was a sacramental marriage, and that the unique circumstances excuse the obligation of the couple to be open to sex/children.

If either is correct, then I just don’t know how to move forward with Catholic theology. One thing I love about Catholicism is how the Church’s tenets explain how natural law and God’s law are one and the same. There is never a “just trust me” or “because this verse in the Bible says X”, there is always a logical explanation. Here, I’m really having trouble with the concept of the Holy Family when I cannot figure out how Mary and Joseph were ever actually married when their marriage seems to defy the Church’s definition of marriage.

It’s easy to look at marriage as a contract, especially if compared to modern day equivalents. But marriage in the Catholic Church is upheld as a covenant, which has a far deeper meaning.

A contract is an exchange of terms and conditions that each party fulfills. But a covenant is an exchange of person, both saying “I give you myself” on each side. So much more like the position of Noah’s and Abraham’s covenants with God, an exchange of person to abide with each other. Much more so with Christ, who gives us Himself fully in body, blood, soul and divinity as we give ourselves to Him, and we abide with each other.

So in Catholic marriage, there is an exchange of persons, a covenant, both parties still being under covenant to God. Now it sounds quite serious, and if marriage were fully explained to couples this way, and that in the event of consumation they become one flesh and inseparable until death in God’s eyes, then maybe greater consideration would be given to getting married, and greater endeavour made in holding marriages together. This is what my catechist taught me, and I wish I had heard it a lot earlier in life because it truly makes sense of such deep love. Thank you MaryAnne.

It begins with valid consent to the right to conjugal relation. A commitment to live in continence only so long as both parties agree would not preclude valid consent. There can never be a unilateral refusal or exclusion of intercourse as a condition of the marriage. That would indeed be an impediment. For example, St Therese’s parents agreed to a continent marriage, under spiritual direction. They took up conjugal life one year later as directed by their spiritual director.

No not exactly. It’s a valid marriage because they married validly according to the laws of their time.

It cannot be a Christian sacramental marriage because neither of them were baptized, not because of the commitment to live in continence. That has nothing to do with it. Sacramentality is a function of baptismal status.

If they were both baptized it would indeed have been a sacramental marriage as well as a valid civil marriage.

Yes, Mary and Joseph did have a situation unique in all history.

Yes, a couple could discern that they should remain continent indefinitely, while validly exchanging the right to intercourse.

This is extremely rare, to the point that I don’t know of any examples other than Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, and they began conjugal relations after a year. It is much more common among couples to agree to a Josephite marriage at some point after conjugal living, such as many Saints and Blesseds who had a “regular” marriage and then later mutually discerned a call in their lives that included continence in their marriage.

Not at all. This is what the Church says: “The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage.”

My understanding, however, is that there was in fact an exclusion of intercourse. There was no right to intercourse, at any point, implied at the time of the marriage. This is where I am getting hung up in these explanations.

That’s kind of what I was trying to say, you said it better.

So which is it? Is it only valid because of the statement you just made above, or would it be considered valid today were they baptized per this statement?

Both. It’s not an either/or.

They were validly married as two Jews. And if they were never baptized, they remained validly married in a natural marriage of two unbaptized people.

If they later became baptized (which the bible does not state, and we have no way to know) then their marriage became a sacrament at the moment they both received baptism.

And if they lived today, the same would be true: if they were both unbaptized it would be a valid natural marriage. If they were both baptized later, their marriage would become a sacramental marriage at the reception of baptism.

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