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.