Today is not a holy day of obligation for American Catholics, even though today we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, because feasts that are normally days of obligation are not obligatory when they fall on a Saturday or a Monday, apparently because someone thinks people shouldn't have to go to church two days in a row, which ignores the fact that obligations are only useful if they are, you know, obligatory, and not sometimes choices or options. Holy days are supposed to disrupt your regularly scheduled programming.
But I grouse. In any case, required observance or not, with our diverse readership it may be useful to give a hit-and-run “Mary 101” review of the dogma, because it is one to which our Protestant friends tend to react. Some assert only that we have no biblical grounds for believing it, though it’s harmless enough in itself, some that even if it is harmless, the practice of making unbiblical teachings into dogma is a very bad thing to do that will lead to worse and worse declarations, and others that the dogma is actually pernicious and not just because we have no biblical grounds for believing it.
The first two I understand, and respect, because they follow clearly from Protestant commitments to the supremacy of Scripture, but I’ve never been able to grasp the logic of the second. Why would the declaration that God has already done for the Mother of God what He will do for the rest of us be in itself a bad thing? I assume they have a good reason for believing this, and respect them for it, but I can’t see it.
The basic declaration is very simple. Issued in 1950, Pope Pius XII’s Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus declared as "a divinely revealed dogma” that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
That’s it. He doesn’t, you’ll notice, say whether or not she died, or in what conditions she was assumed (you’ll have seen the paintings with the traditional setting of the apostles watching her rise and being welcomed by angels), or even what this means for Christian life and faith. Pius simply declares that a particular event happened in human history.
The Assumption of Mary is a difficult matter, from the Protestant point of view, because the traces and hints in Scripture are not easily found, unless you assume that they are there to be found, which somewhat defeats the purpose of using Scripture to convince anyone else. Pius XII said only that the dogma “is in wonderful accord with those divine truths given us in Holy Scripture” and that "various testimonies, indications and signs of this common belief of the Church are evident from remote times down through the course of the centuries.”
As an example of this wonderful accord, he sees the teaching as implicit in Mary as the New Eve. Because she “is most intimately associated” with Jesus, the New Adam, in the struggle against “the infernal foe,” their shared struggle “should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body, for the same Apostle [Paul] says: ‘When this mortal thing hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.’”
While Pius quotes the testimony of a great many Fathers and theologians thereafter, they argue mainly from tradition or from a sense of what is fitting for Mary given what we know of her. In introducing their arguments, in fact, he remarks on those who “have been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption.”
“Wonderful accord with” does not mean “can be proven from,” and here much popular Catholic apologetics fails because it tries to argue the second. We have to go deeper, to a deep difference in the way Protestants and Catholics understand the Church and the way she carries God’s revelation through history. Both traditions agree that we have been given a deposit of faith, but disagree on what it contains and how it is correctly discerned.
Here the Church, the Catholic would say, has seen the truth without being able to argue for it fully. Which is why arguments for or against the dogma don’t get anyone very far. Belief in the dogma depends upon a prior belief in the Catholic Church as Catholics understand her, as I tried to explain briefly in Delivered From All Stain, a column written last spring for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
To which explanation I’d add that in fact the Catholic and the mainstream Protestant agree that the Church (however conceived) takes a while to understand more precisely what she knows, but that the Catholic in practice takes the longer view. Protestants tend to assume that the period of articulation, if I may call it that, ran for four or five or six centuries, thorough the first four Councils, and then stopped. So the fourth century Nicene Creed with its new extra-biblical word for defining who Jesus is, okay, but the twentieth century dogma of the Assumption, not okay.
That is not a Catholic conception of Church history, which recognizes that the Church has, or indeed is, a living tradition, and that she has a Magisterium that allows secure growth in our knowledge of the Truth, and allows Pius to make the declarations he does. The Church imposes no time-limit on what God may teach her, and does not assume that she can see now everything the deposit of faith contains. There may be treasures hidden in the back of the vault or under other treasures, so to speak.
As the writer Ronald Knox noted, for all we know we are still living in the age of the Fathers. Catholics in the future may look at the declaration of the Assumption in 1950 the way we look at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, as the result of a necessarily time-consuming growth in understanding and articulation, which was finally declared when the Church had a chance and a reason to declare it. They may see the Church needing almost 2,000 years formally to state her belief in Mary’s Assumption into Heaven as no odder than her needing 400-some years to come to the definition of Christ given in the “Chalcedonian Definition.”
As Pius put it, talking about the process of study and consultation that led to his declaration, “These studies and investigations have brought out into even clearer light the fact that the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into heaven is contained in the deposit of Christian faith entrusted to the Church.” The ecumenical difficulty, of course, is whether the dogma is contained in the deposit, and that, as I said, is a question that gets at the roots of our differences and can't be settled through an argument about the Assumption of Mary.
I said at the beginning that some of my Protestant friends think the idea that Jesus’ mother was assumed into Heaven is a bad thing in itself, and that I don’t understand why. I would think this a belief one would like to hold even if one couldn’t.
It’s a radically humanistic statement, an affirmation of man in Christ, of what God wants to do for all of us and will do for many at the end of history. It seems fitting, and theologically sensible (as Pius explains), that if God will do this for someone in history, He will have done it for the immaculately conceived woman who bore the Son of God. This is very good news for man, or perhaps we should say it is the Good News dramatized.
David Mills is the Executive Editor of First Things. Discovering Jesus. His previous "On the Square" articles can be found here.
Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus
David Mills, Delivered From All Stain
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