The Assumption of Our Lady

Dogma: By the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII on 1 November, 1950, defined the Assumption of Our Lady as a dogma of faith. (1) The essential passage was: “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 to heavenly glory.” (2) The dogma was part of a program planned by Pius XII, as he confided to Msgr. (later Cardinal) Tardini shortly after he had become Pope. It came as a climax to a movement of piety and theology centered on Our Lady, and prompted continuity and expansion of this movement. Literature on the subject had increased in the twentieth century; in the decade prior to the definition, two works—by Fr. M. Jugie, A.A. and Fr. C. Balic, O.F.M.—were conspicuous for exhaustive, scientific scholarship. Theological congresses, notably those organized by Fr. Balic in different countries and by the French Society for Marian Studies, stimulated research and reflection with a considerable corpus of writing as a result.

Due largely to Fr. Jugie’s expertise and influence, the question of Mary’s death was removed from the scope of the dogma. The idea of tracing a historical tradition from apostolic times was abandoned. It was thought better to concentrate on the whole of divine revelation so as to bring to an explicit stage what it contained implicitly. Again, though the Pope said that all the “proofs and considerations of the Holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Scriptures as their ultimate foundation,” (3) he appealed principally to the faith of the Church rather than any particular biblical text as the basis of the definition. A drafting committee, whose names are known, worked on Munificentissimus Deus. The proceedings were kept secret but the members were known publicly to differ as to what the biblical argument should be.

The faith of the Church had been manifest in different ways. Between 1849 and 1950, numerous petitions for the dogma arrived in Rome. They came from 113 Cardinals, 18 Patriarchs, 2,505 archbishops and bishops, 32,000 priests and men religious, 50,000 religious women, 8,000,000 lay people. On 1 May, 1946 the Pope had sent to the bishops of the world the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis, putting this question to them:

“More especially we wish to know if you, Venerable Brethren, with your learning and prudence consider that the bodily Assumption of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith and whether in addition to your own wishes this is desired by your clergy and people.” When the replies were collated, it was found that 22 residential bishops out of 1181 dissented, but only six doubted that the Assumption was revealed truth—the others questioned the opportuneness.

Figures for dissent among other categories were: Abbots and Prelates nullius, two out of fifty-nine; Vicars Apostolic, three out of 206; titular bishops, five out of 381.

The Pope interpreted the universal agreement of the “ordinary teaching authority” as a “certain and firm proof” that the Assumption is a truth that has been revealed by God. He goes on to outline “various testimonies, indications and signs of this common belief of the Church.” Sacred buildings are mentioned. The witness of the Liturgy is recalled with a reminder from the Pope that it does not “engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it.” When he passes in review the opinions of the Fathers and Doctors, he states that “they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful.”

The Pope is significantly silent on the Transitus stories. His list of prominent writers from early times does not include all who had supported the doctrine; it was rather a representative group to reflect the thought of successive ages. Suarez is the last in order of time, and he is said to be “supported by the common faith of the entire Church.”

Dealing with Scripture, the Apostolic Constitution for the reason given does not appeal directly to any one text as conclusive evidence of the truth. Fr. Jugie had in writing expressed the view that Revelation 12 on the great sign in heaven was the chief scriptural witness to the doctrine. The Pope speaks of the union between the Son and the Mother, especially during the infancy of Jesus. This union must have continued beyond the grave: “It seems impossible” to think of her bodily separated from him. Recalling the filial duty which bound the Redeemer “to honor not only his eternal Father, but also his beloved Mother,” Pius concludes, “And since it was within his power to grant her this great honor, to preserve her from the corruption of the tomb, we must believe, that he really acted in this way.”