What Does It Matter? Four Lessons of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven

Forty years ago, to the acclaim of the Catholic world, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of Mary’s Assumption. Every year, on August 15, the Church observes the feast of the Assumption as a “holy day.” Presently, however, as with a lot else in their tradition, some Catholics appear to be unconvinced that this doctrine has any meaning for them, even if it’s true.

What a difference four decades make! In 1950, Catholic devotion to Mary was at an all-time high. Those were the days of what, even then, some derisively called “Mariolatry”—allegedly excessive and inappropriate attention to the Blessed Virgin. Even Hollywood judged it worth its while to cater to Catholic taste by making films about Lourdes and Fatima.

Then came the ’60s and ’70s. As part of a general sloughing-off of the past, Marian devotion was eclipsed in the lives of many Catholics. These days, despite occasional claims that a modest revival is occurring, large numbers seem to have little or no interest in Mary and her place in Catholic life.

Certainly that is true for the dogma of the Assumption. Beyond question it now strikes many Catholics (to the extent they think of it at all) as partly an anachronism, partly an irrelevance, and altogether an embarrassment. At best, the doctrine is tepidly presented as something possibly true, yet not part of the core group of really important doctrines. At worst, many Catholics simply don’t believe Mary was assumed bodily into heaven or, if they more or less believe, don’t really care. Some would probably rather argue the merits of the Nine First Fridays with non-Catholic friends than try to defend the Assumption.

But the Assumption is a dogma of the Catholic Church, a solemnly defined element of Catholic belief. By denying it or ignoring it, one cannot help setting aside a great deal else of importance to Catholic life. Before doing that, a prudent person will at least take a look at what’s at stake.

On November 1, 1950, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII solemnly declared it to be “divinely revealed dogma” that “Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” That is the defined doctrine of the Assumption.

All very well,” someone might say, “but even supposing the truth of it—what practical significance does it have? Even if Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven, what difference does it make?”

I wish to suggest four answers to that question, not because they are absolutely the best or most important ones, but because they have particular timeliness here and now. I do not propose to “prove” the doctrine of the Assumption but to demonstrate its relevance. This dogma is important today for its relationship to four large issues: papal teaching authority, biblical fundamentalism, body/soul dualism, and the content of hope as a motive for Christian living.

The Assumption is relevant to the question of papal teaching authority precisely because the definition of the dogma by Pius XII was such a clear and striking exercise of that authority.

The point hardly needs belaboring. As a “tough” Marian doctrine, defined by an infallible papal teaching act, the Assumption puts it to Catholics to declare themselves on the subject of the papal magisterium. Either one accepts or one rejects what Vatican Council II, repeating Vatican I, declared in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 14 years after Pius’s action: “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys… infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith (cf. Luke 22:32)—he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (Lumen Gentium, 25). This, one need hardly add, is precisely what Pius XII did in defining the Assumption.

Many other acts of papal teaching also compel Catholics to take a stand. The great test case in modern times is not Munificentissimus Deus but Humanae Vitae. And there is this obvious difference between the two: Pius XII considered himself to be teaching infallibly, Paul VI apparently did not. (It’s a disputed question, nevertheless, whether Humanae Vitae teaches something already taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium of the pope and bishops. I think it does.)

Despite that difference, however, these two exercises of the papal magisterium are alike in that they oblige thinking Catholics to decide how they will respond when a pope teaches something not self-evidently true—something, moreover, which is profoundly uncongenial to the modernist, accommodationist religious mentality of our times. Dissent? Suspend judgment? Pretend it never happened? Or make an honest commitment to understand and accept what has been taught?

The dogma of the Assumption is a contradiction of biblical fundamentalism and the entire “sola scriptura” way of thinking.

Where do you find the Assumption in the Bible? Quite simply: you do not. You find it in tradition, understood precisely as a depository of divine revelation co-equal with the Bible. In the words of Vatican II: “Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church” (Dei Verbum, 10).

Thus, Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, was on eminently solid Catholic ground in declaring the doctrine of the Assumption to be “divinely revealed,” even though it is not stated explicitly in Scripture. He was appealing to tradition as a source of what God has revealed.

That is timely today. Narrow biblicalism which seeks to ground doctrine in a literal, yet often arbitrary, reading of selected scriptural texts is currently making inroads among Catholics as well as others to such an extent that, a couple of years ago, the U.S. bishops felt compelled to issue a statement warning against biblical fundamentalism and its attendant mentality. This way of thinking attacks Catholic faith at its roots.

It also rules out any possibility of development of doctrine. How can doctrine “develop” when it is tied to a rigid, literal reading of selected scriptural texts? Here, too, the Catholic understanding of these matters, of central importance in the case of the Assumption and much else, was expressed by Vatican II: “The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on…. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plentitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (Dei Verbum, 8).

The dogma of the Assumption is a repudiation of body/soul dualism.

Despite its Manichaean origins, dualism is more than just an ancient heresy. It’s alive and well in twentieth-century America. In a recent issue of Anthropotes, John Crosby quotes an American feminist “calling herself Catholic” as saying: “God does not care what we do with our bodies, but only how we treat each other as persons.” With notable understatement, Crosby remarks: “If persons get estranged from their bodies like this, then it becomes very hard indeed for them to make any sense at all of Humanae Vitae and of other Catholic teachings on sexuality and procreation.”

Making sense is the lesser part of the problem. The mindset of body/soul dualism underlies a great deal of the polymorphous perversity rampant in contemporary Western society. According to this way of thinking, the human person is, in the title of a book by Arthur Koestler, a “ghost in the machine.” In other words, “person” essentially is spirit or mind or consciousness; body is extrinsic to personhood; and “persons” thus defined can do with their bodies, and with the bodies of others, very much as suits them, without touching personhood itself. These ideas are today infecting much of Catholic moral theology.

They are, however, contradicted by the Assumption. This dogma affirms the importance of the human body precisely because it is intrinsic to personhood. Preserved by a special act of divine power from that separation of body and soul which death brings about temporarily in the rest of us, Mary’s personhood remained integral even after her life on earth had ended: she was assumed into heaven “body and soul.” Thus the Assumption implies an anthropology—a way of understanding the human person—which is fundamental to Catholic teaching on human rights, procreation, and the sanctity of life. Her assumption foretells our own bodily resurrection.

Finally, the dogma also affirms something of central importance concerning heaven. For us, heaven will mean not only spiritual but bodily fulfillment: it will be our experience of fulfillment as integral human persons.

Hope of heaven is a crucial motive for the living of Christian life, inasmuch as it grounds efforts to realize ideals whose difficulty can otherwise make them seem futile and even meaningless. In the case of nonbelievers, of course, the problem is dissolved by treating heaven as a myth. The filter-down consequences which this has for behavior are clear enough. St. Paul put it succinctly to the Corinthians: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’ ”

But the solution is not a great deal more persuasive in the case of believers whose ideas of the afterlife are infected either by the vision of heaven found in New Yorker cartoons—clouds, harps, and white robes—or by the overly intellectualized heaven of some theologians, who tend to treat the “beatific vision” as a purely mental act of contemplating the divine reality. There is, if the truth be told, not a great deal here to appeal to most people, and so not a great deal to inspire hope.

The Assumption suggests a vastly richer and more appealing vision of heaven, a vision of integral fulfillment in respect to the full range of human goods, including human bodily good. Although plainly it is not possible to say precisely what this will mean, Vatican Council Mends emphatic support to this way of thinking when it says of human goods that in heaven “we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured” (Gaudium et Spes, 39).

Thus the Assumption, with its stress on Mary’s integral fulfillment as an anticipation of our own, supplies grounds to hope for a heaven worth aspiring to. Such hope can serve as a motive to sustain our efforts to live a Christian life in the face of the disappointments and defeats which, in a fallen world, those efforts are certain to entail.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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