The Assumption and Our Lady’s death

Yesterday was the Feast of the Assumption, and we saw in a couple of places some questions about what, exactly, the Dogma of the Assumption requires Catholics to believe. A certain question arises in the context of the comparison of the Assumption with the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Feast of the Dormition: did Our Lady die before she was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory? Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox say that she did, in fact, suffer death, and was resurrected and assumed into heaven. (There are various accounts of her death and resurrection.) But what does the Latin Church say? It turns out that that’s an open question. Indeed, we’ll see here in a minute that Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption, in fact, leaves the question open. But, we’ll also see that the tradition of the Church provides a possible—probable?—answer.

First a quick reminder what Pius declared. In the Latin text of Munificentissimus Deus, the Dogma of the Assumption is defined thus:

Quapropter, postquam supplices etiam atque etiam ad Deum admovimus preces, ac Veritatis Spiritus lumen invocavimus, ad Omnipotentis Dei gloriam, qui peculiarem benevolentiam suam Mariae Virgini dilargitus est, ad sui Filii honorem, immortalis saeculorum Regis ac peccati mortisque victoris, ad eiusdem augustae Matris augendam gloriam et ad totius Ecclesiae gaudium exsultationemque, auctoritate Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, Beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra pronuntiamus, declaramus et definimus divinitus revelatum dogma esse : Immaculatam Deiparam semper Virginem Mariam, expleto terrestris vitae cursu, fuisse corpore et anima ad caelestem gloriam assumptam.

(Emphasis supplied.) Which is rendered in the Vatican’s English translation as:

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be 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.

(Emphasis supplied.) She “completed the course of her earthly life.” In other words, Pius XII never says whether Our Lady died prior to being assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

Father John Hunwicke makes precisely that observation, and goes on to observe that Pius’s definition actually omits a considerable part of the tradition:

The first millennium texts common to Rome and Canterbury expressed a belief common also to the East: that Mary ‘underwent temporal death’; that nevertheless she ‘could not be held down by the bonds of death’ and that the precise reason why God ‘translated her from this age’ was that ‘she might faithfully intercede for our sins’. This is the Ancient Common Tradition of East and West. It is, in fact, expressed clearly in much of the liturgical and patristic evidence which Pius XII cited as evidence for the dogma in Munificentissimus Deus; one suspects that this is because the Pope would have been much shorter of evidence if he had omitted this material. But it is left out of the definition. Which means that it has de facto disappeared from the consciousness of Latin Christendom.


Yet this is not what Pius XII defined. His 1950 definition, as the ARCIC document on Mary accurately reminds us, does not ‘use about her the language of death and resurrection, but celebrates the action of God in her.’ [A very strange ‘but’!] In other words, Pius XII took a machete and slashed ruthlessly at the Common Ancient Tradition about our Lady’s end, not simply by ignoring the apocryphal stories about how the Apostles gathered and what they found in the tomb and how S Thomas arrived late and all the rest of it; but also by pruning away even the bare structural bones of what Christians Eastern and Western had harmoniously thought they knew: that she died and was resurrected.

(Emphasis supplied.) But Father Hunwicke is not alone in this observation.

No less a churchman than St. John Paul made the same observation in a June 1997 general audience, noting that the opinion that Our Lady did not die was “unknown until the 17th century”:

Concerning the end of Mary’s earthly life, the Council uses the terms of the Bull defining the dogma of the Assumption and states: “The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over” (Lumen gentium, n. 59). With this formula, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, following my Venerable Predecessor Pius XII, made no pronouncement on the question of Mary’s death. Nevertheless, Pius XII did not intend to deny the fact of her death, but merely did not judge it opportune to affirm solemnly the death of the Mother of God as a truth to be accepted by all believers. 

Some theologians have in fact maintained that the Blessed Virgin did not die and and was immediately raised from earthly life to heavenly glory. However, this opinion was unknown until the 17th century, whereas a common tradition actually exists which sees Mary’s death as her entry into heavenly glory. 

Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother. 

The Fathers of the Church, who had no doubts in this regard, reasoned along these lines. One need only quote St Jacob of Sarug (†521), who wrote that when the time came for Mary “to walk on the way of all generations”, the way, that is, of death, “the group of the Twelve Apostles” gathered to bury “the virginal body of the Blessed One” (Discourse on the burial of the Holy Mother of God, 87-99 in C. Vona, Lateranum 19 [1953], 188). St Modestus of Jerusalem (†634), after a lengthy discussion of “the most blessed dormition of the most glorious Mother of God”, ends his eulogy by exalting the miraculous intervention of Christ who “raised her from the tomb”, to take her up with him in glory (Enc. in dormitionem Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae, nn. 7 and 14: PG 86 bis, 3293; 3311). St John Damascene (†704) for his part asks: “Why is it that she who in giving birth surpassed all the limits of nature should now bend to its laws, and her immaculate body be subjected to death?”. And he answers: “To be clothed in immortality, it is of course necessary that the mortal part be shed, since even the master of nature did not refuse the experience of death. Indeed, he died according to the flesh and by dying destroyed death; on corruption he bestowed incorruption and made death the source of resurrection” (Panegyric on the Dormition of the Mother of God, n. 10: SC 80, 107).

(Emphasis supplied and one hyperlink omitted.) Unknown until the 17th century! A common, patristic tradition says Our Lady died! What on earth could explain the more recent opinion—an opinion that is, in the life of the Church, no older than the day before yesterday—that Our Lady did not die?

John Paul has an idea, and it’s confusion—though confusion might be too strong a word—resulting from the Immaculate Conception. We die because of original sin. But for Adam and Eve’s first sin in Eden, we would live forever. (This is, of course, why a New Adam was necessary to restore us to immortality.) But! the objection goes, Our Lady was in her conception preserved free from the stain of original sin. Indeed, Pius IX infallibly declared the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus in 1854. So, the argument goes, if we die because of original sin (true!), and Our Lady was preserved free from the stain of original sin (true!), then Our Lady was not subject to death. How, then, can one hold that Our Lady died before being assumed bodily into heavenly glory? John Paul answers:

It is true that in Revelation death is presented as a punishment for sin. However, the fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege does not lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality. The Mother is not superior to the Son who underwent death, giving it a new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation. 

Involved in Christ’s redemptive work and associated in his saving sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for the sake of humanity’s Redemption. What Severus of Antioch says about Christ also applies to her: “Without a preliminary death, how could the Resurrection have taken place?” (Antijulianistica, Beirut 1931, 194f.). To share in Christ’s Resurrection, Mary had first to share in his death.

(Emphasis supplied.) Recall briefly the witness of St. John Damascene in the passage quoted above:

“Why is it that she who in giving birth surpassed all the limits of nature should now bend to its laws, and her immaculate body be subjected to death?”. And he answers: “To be clothed in immortality, it is of course necessary that the mortal part be shed, since even the master of nature did not refuse the experience of death. Indeed, he died according to the flesh and by dying destroyed death; on corruption he bestowed incorruption and made death the source of resurrection

(Emphasis supplied.) And this makes sense, and, for our part, it answers the objection nicely. Others may have deeper, more penetrating questions remaining, but our limited, limited theological training leaves us happy with what we have here.

We add, as a brief aside, that it also seems to us that this would be an excellent point to include in official dialogue between Catholic, both Latin and Eastern, theologians and Orthodox theologians, since it is a point where there could be much fruitful enrichment of the Latin tradition by the Eastern and Orthodox traditions.

Returning to our main point, it seems to us that Pius XII may well have had Ineffabilis Deus and the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in mind when he defined the Assumption. Certainly, the common tradition of the Church—capital-T Tradition, most likely—held that Our Lady died, was raised from the dead, and was assumed bodily into heaven. Pius cites sources from this tradition in Munificentissimus Deus. Yet, when it comes time to actually define the Dogma of the Assumption, Pius leaves this significant component of the tradition out, making instead a very general statement about Our Lady completing the course of her earthly life. (And it seems to us, if she was assumed body and soul into heaven, perforce she completed the course of her earthly life.) Is it possible, then, that Pius wanted to avoid the merest whiff of difficulty with his dogmatic definition? The faintest hint of trickiness between the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption? One way to do that would be to adopt a minimalistic definition of the Assumption that permits Catholics to adopt, really, either view about the exact circumstances of Our Lady’s assumption into heaven.

In one of our comments elsewhere about this question, we observed that it would be a worthwhile project to write a study about the circumstances, beginning in 1946 with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, polling the world’s bishops about whether it was opportune to define as a dogma the Assumption, and continuing through the glorious fall day in 1950 when Pius declared the dogma. It would be an interesting story, full of colorful characters. (One of Pius’s advisers was the eminent Dominican theologian, Guérard des Lauriers, who was later consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Thuc, for example.) And it may well clear up some of the perplexities surrounding the definition, including why, precisely, Pius chose not to include an important aspect of the tradition in the definition. Perhaps such a study exists, and if it does and you’re feeling charitable, do feel free to drop us an email.