Today in Mass my eight year old daughter asked me a very insightful question that, if it were asked by many Protestants, would lead them by its own inner logic to confess that our Blessed Lady did indeed remain a virgin perpetually throughout her life, as the Church has always confessed. The Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is, of course, the Annunciation narrative from Luke 1. My daughter noticed something when the priest read verses 34 and 35, where the Gabriel has just finished explaining to Mary that she will conceive the Savior in her womb. Mary responds to Gabriel in the following manner:
And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Luke 1:34-35).
My daughter, reflecting on this passage, said, "If Mary knew she was going to get married, why did she wonder how she was going to have a baby?" Interesting. Mary was betrothed to Joseph; therefore, the announcement that she would have a child should have come as a shock to her. So why Mary's astonishment? My daughter's instincts about this question were spot on; this question does not make any sense, if in fact Mary was not a Perpetual Virgin. While non-Catholic commentators tend to brush past this passage in assuming it is a reflection of Mary's incredulity at the possibility of getting pregnant without a husband, we shall see that, upon closer inspection, no such interpretation is possible.
Suppose, for example, that you are a young woman. Suppose you are engaged, like Mary was. Suppose somebody comes up to you and says, "You will bear a child." Now, (assuming you are not contracepting), what would be so revelatory about this? Even though you would not yet be married, there is nothing particularly amazing about the fact that a woman who is going to be married will bear a child. Note that the angel in verse 1:31 mentions only that Mary will conceive and bear a son, saying, "Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus." At this point, he has said nothing about the miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost. As far as Mary knows (at this point), this will be a normal conception, done according to the natural mode of procreation, since the angel as not yet mentioned the Virginal Conception.
It is this presumed natural conception that Mary expresses astonishment at. "How can this be?" she exclaims, not expressing shock at the idea of a virginal conception (for Gabriel has not announced this part of it yet), but merely at the idea of conceiving a child period. Her initial astonishment is at the suggestion that she will have a child, not that the child will be supernaturally conceived. Since the virginal conception has not yet been announced (and is in fact announced only in response to Mary's astonished questioning), we can't posit any other reason for Mary to be astonished at the suggestion that she would have a child other than that she had assumed she would never bear children; i.e., that she was a perpetual virgin.
This question, "How can this be?" makes no sense at all if Mary is not a perpetual virgin. If she were planning on having children by St. Joseph, when Gabriel said, "You shall bear a son," a more natural response from Mary would have been "Yes, I was assuming I would, since I am getting married in a few months." In other words, Gabriel's message would have been seen solely as a prophetic announcement of an otherwise natural occurrence that had yet to come to pass, rather than as the inauguration of the great miracle of the Incarnation, which according to Tradition, took place at the time of Mary's Fiat.
One issue to clear up here is the sloppy translation of Mary's question as "How can this be, since I have no husband?" The Greek verb that is usually translated as "can" is actually "shall," a form of the verb "to be." Mary is not questioning whether it can be done in the sense of expressing doubt, but is inquiring into the practical "how" of the angel's words; she acknowledges in faith that it shall be done, but wonders how. This must lead us to ask: if Mary was planning on having normal marital relations with St. Joseph in the future, why would she ask how she was to conceive? This, again, suggests that she had no intention of having marital relations with Joseph, which explains her faithful questioning of how this conception was to occur.
There is also a problem in the second clause of Mary's response, the phrase "I have no husband." Here the NAB is being patently unfaithful to the Vulgate, which does not say "I have no husband," but rather virum non cognosco, literally, "I know not man." The Vulgate is faithful to the Greek, as well, which says ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω, the word ἄνδρα meaning man with reference to sex (to distinguish from woman) and γινώσκω, which means simply "to know" (ginōskō) in the general form, but as we all know is also the Jewish idiom for having sexual intercourse. The Greek and Latin both clearly indicate that what Mary really said was "How shall this be, since I know not man?" If we understand "know" in the Jewish sense of "to have intercourse with," then Mary's statement might be more accurately rendered "How shall this come to pass, since I have no relations with man?" Notice that Mary does not say "I have not yet had relations with a man," but categorically says "I know not man"; i.e., I have not now, nor do I ever plan on "knowing" a man. Hence her astonishment at being told she will conceive.
This is not a new argument in favor of the Perpetual Virginity of our Lady; most of you have heard it before, other apologists more astute than I have written more eloquently about it, and I think it was even mentioned by St. Augustine (though I didn't find this argument in St. Jerome's famous Letter to Helvidius). But I never realized before how plain and simple it is to understand, that even an eight year old girl can recognize that Mary's question to the angel makes no sense unless she is a Perpetual Virgin.
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise" (Matt. 21:16)