Mary’s Death and Bodily Assumption

Updated: May 30, 2020



On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God into heaven in the following words:


Wherefore, 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 that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and 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. (1)


Meaning and Scope of the Definition


1. We define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: In the definition of the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Mother, Pope Pius IX used a somewhat different formula.

(2) The formula used by Pope Pius XII in the definition of the Assumption is, however, similar to that used by the Fathers of the Vatican Council in their definition of Papal Infallibility. (3) By the terms revealed dogma is meant that the Assumption of Mary body and soul into heavenly glory is a fact contained within the deposit of revelation given to us by God and is now solemnly proposed by the Pope to be believed as such by all the faithful.


2. Having completed the course of her earthly life: Due to the dispute over the fact of Our Blessed Lady’s death, the question of the precise scope of the doctrine of the Assumption was likewise a matter of dispute among theologians prior to November 1, 1950. Some maintained that the object of this privilege is the glorious resurrection of the Blessed Virgin, presupposing, therefore, the fact of her death. (4) This opinion was based upon the reasoning that in theological investigation we must not separate those truths which are inseparable in Tradition, the Liturgy, and the pious belief of the faithful. This opinion took for granted that the death, glorious resurrection, and bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin were taught as inseparable truths in Tradition and were always believed to be such by the faithful. Other theologians, on the contrary, maintained that the doctrine of the Assumption has within its scope only the glorious Assumption of Mary, body and soul into heaven, whether she died or not. (5)


The fact of Mary’s death and subsequent resurrection is uncertain. We cannot say, therefore, that they are included within the scope of the definition of Pope Pius XII. (6) For a Pope defines only what is certain. And should it be established later beyond shadow of doubt that Mary actually died and subsequently rose again before her sacred body saw corruption, this new discovery would have no bearing whatever upon the scope of the definition in the Munificentissimus Deus. For that alone is within the scope of a definition which the Holy Father or an Ecumenical Council intends to define at the moment of definition. And, by the same reasoning, those who maintain that Mary did not die cannot say that Pope Pius XII defined that Mary was assumed into heavenly glory without having previously died and risen again. The fact alone of her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven is now of faith by virtue of this Constitution, and not her death, resurrection, or bodily immortality.


A brief glance at the history of the doctrine of the death and insurrection of Mary and at the theological arguments adduced in support of them should serve to justify the opinion just stated.


In the first three centuries there are absolutely no references in the authentic works of the Fathers or ecclesiastical writers to the death or bodily immortality of Mary. Nor is there any mention of a tomb of Mary in the first centuries of Christianity. The veneration of the tomb of the Blessed Virgin at Jerusalem began about the middle of the fifth century; and even here there is no agreement as to whether its locality was in the Garden of Olives or in the Valley of Josaphat. Nor is any mention made in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus (431) of the fact that the Council, convened to defend the Divine Maternity of the Mother of God, is being held in the very city selected by God for her final resting place. Only after the Council did the tradition begin which placed her tomb in that city.


The earliest known (non-Apocryphal) mention concerning the end of Mary’s life appears in the writings of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, the ancient Salamina, in the isle of Cyprus. Born in Palestine, we may assume that he was well aware of the traditions there. Yet we find these words in his Panarion or Medicine Chest (of remedies for all heresies), written in c. 377: “Whether she died or was buried we know not.” (7) Speaking of the cautious language used by St. Epiphanius, Father Roschini says:


To understand his words fully we must remember that he was conscious, when writing, of two heresies which were then living and dangerous: that of the Antidicomarianites, and that of the Collyridians. The former denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, the latter, erring in the opposite direction, maintained that divine worship should be given to her. To assert that Our Lady died was to give a handle to the one heresy (for it was to suggest that the body of Mary was subject to the corruption of the tomb, and thus minimize her prerogatives); to assert that she did not die was to encourage the other. (8)


And with the exception of a so-called contemporary of Epiphanius, Timothy of Jerusalem, who said: “Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because He who dwelt in her took her to the regions of the Ascension,” no early writer ever doubted the fact of her death. They did not, however, examine the question; they merely took the fact of her death for granted.


Apparently influenced by the apocryphal Transitus writings of the fifth to the seventh centuries, later Fathers and Church writers likewise spoke of the death of Mary as a fact taken for granted. For all men, including Christ, died: therefore, Mary, too. Like their predecessors, they did not consider ex professo the theological arguments for or against.


St. Isidore of Seville (d.636) appears to be the first to cast some doubt upon the fact of Mary’s death. Obviously ignoring the Apocrypha, he said of the death of Mary: “. . . nowhere does one read of her death. Although, as some say, her sepulcher may be found in the valley of Josaphat.” (10) Tusaredo, a Bishop in the Asturias province of Spain in the eighth century, wrote: “Of the glorious Mary, no history teaches that she suffered martyrdom or any other kind of death.” (11) Although St. Andrew of Crete (d. 720) generally introduced much theological argumentation into his writings, he states, with very little argumentation, that Mary died because her Son died. (12) The same is true of a similar teaching of St. John Damascene (d. 749). (13) And about one hundred years later, Theodore Abou-Kurra (d. c. 820) likened the death of Mary to the sleep of Adam in the Garden when God formed Eve from one of his ribs. (14) This, obviously, was not a true death.


All the great Scholastics of the thirteenth century taught that Mary died. The principal reason for their so teaching was obviously the fact that they denied the Immaculate Conception in the sense in which it was defined by Pope Pius IX. (15) Thus we read in the writings of St. Bonaventure: “If the Blessed Virgin was free from original sin, she was also exempt from the necessity of dying; therefore, either her death was an injustice or she died for the salvation of the human race. But the former supposition is blasphemous, implying that God is not just; and the latter, too, is a blasphemy against Christ for it implies that His Redemption is insufficient. Both are therefore erroneous and impossible. Therefore Our Blessed Lady was subject to original sin.” (16)


After the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 the question of whether or not Our Blessed Lady died gradually became a subject of wide theological discussion and is today one of the most widely disputed Mariological questions. The impetus to further study out of which arose the present state of dispute was given by the writings of Dominic Arnaldi of Genoa who died in the year 1895. Arnaldi defended the thesis that Our Blessed Lady’s complete freedom from sin demanded her freedom from the penalty of death. (17)


Today we have diametrically opposed views on the death of Mary supported by outstanding Mariologists. The most outspoken proponents of the thesis that Mary did not die are Roschini and Gallus. (18) Father Freithoff, O.P., expressed the view that “the death of Mary is not certain, either historically or from revelation.” (19) On the other hand, Father C. Balic, O.F.M., maintains that “the terminus a quo of the Assumption is the death of Our Lady, the terminus ad quem is the glorification of her body in heaven. The object of the Assumption in recto is the glorification of the living body, and ex obliquo her death and resurrection.” (20) Father J. F. Bonnefoy, O.F.M., goes so far as to state that “the death of the Most Holy Virgin may be considered as historically proved and explicitly revealed: as such (explicitly revealed) it may be the subject of a dogmatic definition: there is no reason why it should not be.” (21) And the Mariological Week held at Salamanca (Spain) in 1949, which was devoted exclusively to the question of the death of Mary, sent a petition to the Holy See requesting the definition “… of the bodily Assumption of the B. V. Mary into heaven, after death…” (22) It is little wonder, then, that Cardinal Pizzardo, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, in an address on the occasion of the First International Mariological Congress in Rome (1950) referred to the question of the end of the life of the Blessed Virgin as a very obscure problem, and one which demands further study and clarification by theologians. (23)


All theologians agree, of course, that Mary was not subject to death as a penalty for sin. However, God willed that “she die for higher reasons pertaining to her relationship with Christ and the part she was to play in the work of Redemption.” (24) The reasons brought forth by those who maintain that Our Blessed Mother actually died may be reduced to the following two:


a) Conformity to Christ: The condition of the Mother should not be better than that of her divine Son. The Verbum willingly assumed passible and mortal flesh and came into the world “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” (25) in order that, through it, He might redeem us from our sins. As the Mother of the passible and mortal Redeemer from whom He took His mortal flesh, Mary, too, had to be passible and mortal. She did not, however, voluntarily assume mortal flesh as did her divine Son as something from which she was exempt. This was God’s will for her although she died not as a penalty for sin but pro conditione carnis.


This argument, however, might justly be called a post factum argument, proposed to explain the fact of Mary’s death after her death had been taken for granted. However, in its favor is the theological axiom: lex orandi statuit legem credendi. And until recently these words were in the Secret of the Mass for the Assumption. One may argue, however, that the Liturgy in this instance merely stated a popular belief, one which everyone took for granted in view of the fact of Christ’s death. For, the Second Council of Orange is quite explicit in its teaching that those who hold that the penalty of death (reatus poenae) is transmitted to the body without the transmission of sin or the death of the soul (reatus culpae) to all the children of Adam, do an injustice to God. (26) Hence, where there is no sin there can be no obligatory death of the body in a child of Adam. Hence, it would appear that if we are to defend the fact of Mary’s death we must look to another reason, one wherein the acceptance of death by Mary would be a voluntary act. Theologians see this in Mary’s role of Coredeemer of the human race.


b) Mary’s role of Coredeemer: Due to the teaching of the Second Council of Orange, many theologians who maintain that Mary died claim that she had a right to immortality but, like her Son, freely accepted death in order that she might coredeem the human race together with Him. Yet the objection is raised against this opinion that Mary should then have died on Calvary with Christ. For, with the death and resurrection of Christ the Redemption was completed in actu primo and, consequently, the Coredemption. This, too, goes counter to the traditionally accepted belief that Mary coredeemed us by a spiritual compassion, suffering in her soul the agony Christ suffered for us in His Body.


The Constitution Munificentissimus Deus leaves the question open. In the words of the definition death is not mentioned but only “having completed the course of her earthly life.” The question of the death of Mary is not treated as a subject bearing upon the Assumption. True, the Holy Father frequently mentions the death of the Blessed Virgin in the body of the document, but in every instance he quotes someone else. He does not give his own views on the subject. Consequently, I believe we can say with Father Roschini that “the question of Mary’s death is a matter for free discussion.” (27)


Finally, we should note here that whether Mary died or not, she was not subject to the law of death, the corruption of the grave. If she died, then she was assumed into heaven before her sacred body saw corruption. For, so long as the bodies of the just remain in the dust of the earth, they are under the dominion of death, and they sigh for the ultimate redemption of their bodies. (28)


3. Was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory: The Assumption of Our Blessed Mother was a privilege granted not to her body alone nor to her soul alone but to the person, Mary. True, we speak of the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin but this is due to the fact that there never has been any dispute over the question of her soul enjoying the beatific vision once she completed the course of her earthly life. Thus, the Holy Father said: “. . . the ever Virgin Mary . . . was assumed.”


The precise degree of glory to which Our Blessed Mother was assumed has never been defined by the Church. It is, however, certain theological teaching that her degree of grace at the first moment of her Immaculate Conception was greater than that possessed by any individual angel or man at the first moment of sanctification. This teaching is based on the law of filial piety whereby the Verbum loved His designated Mother more than any other creature. That the first influx of grace was greater than the consummated grace of any individual man is the common teaching of theologians and taught for the same reason as that given for the above opinion. And that Mary’s first influx of grace was greater in degree than the consummated grace of all men and angels together is a solidly probable opinion. (29)


Add to this the fact that the degree of sanctifying grace received by Mary at the moment of her Immaculate Conception was increased ex opere operato through the great dignity of the divine maternity and her reception of some of the sacraments, as well as ex opere operantis during every moment of her life on earth, and we find that the degree of glory to which she was assumed is beyond human comprehension and second only to that of Christ as Man. For the degree of glory enjoyed in heaven is determined by the degree of sanctifying grace with which the soul is adorned at the moment bf death.


We shall now outline and comment upon the reasons given in the Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which led the Holy Father to the definition of Mary’s Assumption into heaven. The Constitution may be divided as follows: (30)


I. The Assumptionistic Movement (31)


II. The teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium;


III. Indications of our present belief found in remote testimonies;


a) The faithful have professed this faith under the leadership of their shepherds;

b) This faith is shown in temples, images, various exercises of devotion to the Blessed Virgin assumed into heaven;

c) This faith is shown in the Solemn Liturgies;

d) This faith is shown in the testimonies of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church;

e) This faith is shown in the writings of the theologians of Church.


I. The Assumptionistic Movement


Toward the beginning of the Munificentissimus Deus our Holy Father speaks of the Assumptionistic Movement within the Church in these words:


That privilege (the Assumption of Mary) has shone forth in new radiance since Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the loving Mother of God’s Immaculate Conception. These two privileges are most closely bound to one another. (32) Christ overcame sin and death by His own death, and one who through Baptism has been born again in a supernatural way has conquered sin and death through the same Christ. Yet, according to the general rule, God does not will to grant to the just the full effect of the victory over death until the end of time has come. And so it is that the bodies of even the just are corrupted after death, and only on the last day will they be joined, each to its own glorious soul.


Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should he exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.


Thus, when it was solemnly proclaimed that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, was from the very beginning free from the taint of original sin, the minds of the faithful were filled with a stronger hope that the day might soon come when the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven would also be defined by the Church’s supreme teaching authority.


Actually, it was seen that not only individual Catholics, but also those who could speak for nations or ecclesiastical provinces, and even a considerable number of the Fathers of the Vatican Council, urgently petitioned the Apostolic See to this effect. (33)


The petitions of which the Holy Father speaks above were collected and evaluated at his command (34) in two volumes edited by W Hentrich and R. de Moos and entitled: Petitiones de Assumptione corporea B. V. Mariae in coelum definienda ad Sanctam Sedem delata (35) From the year 1869 to the year 1941, resident bishops, ruling 820 sees or 73 per cent of all the Catholic sees of the world, submitted 1789 of these petitions. (36) To these petitions were added 656 titular bishops, 261 by vicars apostolic, 26 by abbots and prelates nullius, 61 by general superiors of clerical orders, 336 by minor prelates, 32,291 by priests and male religious, 50,975 by female religious, and 8,086,396 by the laity. (37)


The most significant petition was that submitted by nearly 200 bishops attending the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican in which stated:


Since, according to apostolic teaching (Rom. 5, 8; 1 Cor. 15, 24, 26, 54, 57; Hebr. 2, 14-15 and other places), that triumph which Christ wrought over Satan, the serpent of antiquity, was constituted by the three-fold victory over sin and the fruits of sin, which are concupiscence and death, its integral parts; and since according to Genesis (3,15) the Mother of God is shown as associated in a singular manner with her Son in this triumph; according to the unanimous vote of the Holy Fathers, we do not doubt that in the aforesaid oracle the same Blessed Virgin is shown as sharing in that threefold victory; and therefore in the same place it was foretold that she would be made victress over sin through her Immaculate Conception, over concupiscence through her virginal maternity, and also over death through her accelerated resurrection in the likeness of her Son. (38)


II. The Teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium


“And, since we are dealing with a matter of such great moment and of such importance, we considered it opportune to ask all Our venerable brethren in the episcopate directly and authoritatively that each of them should make known to Us