The Church considers death both a punishment for sin and the means of redemption. Why is it silent about whether the Mother of God died before her Assumption into heaven?
Apious Catholic expression holds that about Mary one can never say too much. Yet on the question of how Mary's life on earth ended, the Church remains silent.
In his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (issued on the Solemnity of All Saints, 1950) Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but left open the question of her death. Vatican II put it this way:
“The Immaculate Virgin, preserved from all stain of Original Sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death” (Lumen Gentium, 59).
A Deliberate Silence
The Church does not teach how Mary's earthly life ended. This deliberate silence leaves open the question of whether Mary died before she was assumed into heaven. In defining that dogma, the Church explains that she was “preserved free from all stain of Original Sin” and that the Assumption allowed her to be “more fully conformed to her Son.” On the question of death, these two phrases point to different answers. Arguments which emphasize preservation from Original Sin point toward not dying, while an emphasis on conformity to Christ points toward death.
And as both phrases touch upon matters absolutely fundamental to the faith, it is worth examining how they both apply to the Assumption. The arguments also direct attention to how Christians ought to think about the fundamental reality of life in this world, namely, death. The Church thinks very clearly about death, knowing that death is both a punishment for sin and the means of redemption. Perhaps the Church's silence on the particular question of Mary's death is meant to encourage the faithful to meditate on the central question of death in general.
Death is natural for man. As a material thing, his body is subject to death and decay. Nevertheless, he was created with bodily immortality, not as something natural, but as a special preternatural gift of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 376). This gift was withdrawn after the sin of Adam. The consequence of this Original Sin is death, inherited by all men as descendants of Adam (cf. Catechism 402, 404). The Church insists that death “cannot be understood apart from [its] connection with Adam's sin” (Catechism 403). The stronger the insistence upon the link between Original Sin and its punishment (death), the stronger the case that a woman without Original Sin should not be liable to death.
Free from Original Sin
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception confirms that Mary was preserved from all stain of Original Sin (Catechism 490). Justice demands then that Mary should not suffer the punishments for that sin. This is consistent with the fact that Mary enjoyed some of the other preternatural gifts that man possessed before the Fall. Her sinlessness throughout life (Catechism 493) would have required the gift of the proper submission of her appetites to her reason, i.e., she did not suffer concupiscence. Her delivery of Christ while remaining a physical virgin (Catechism 499) indicates that she was free of labor pains, another consequence of Original Sin (Gn 3:16). Thus preservation from death would be altogether fitting as the crowning of the other preternatural gifts. Moreover, it would seem unjust for the sinless Mary to suffer death.
Yet it is possible to accept all of the foregoing and still hold that Mary did die. A fortiori, Christ should not have died yet “He humbled himself, obediently accepting even death” (Ph 2:8). Dying on the cross was Christ's mission in the world and, in order to embrace it, he laid aside his bodily immortality. It is unjust for the innocent to be punished for the sins of the guilty, but love can compensate for what justice cannot demand, and so the innocent can offer himself willingly. At the very least then, the example of Christ means that death for Mary cannot be ruled out.
Mary's mission in the world is not different from that of her divine Son. In her fiat Mary gave herself to the “divine will wholeheartedly … to the person and work of her Son” (Catechism 494). It was the eternal will of the Father that his Son would die. And if the Lord humbles himself to accept death, what will the handmaid of the Lord do? It would seem that Mary would choose to imitate Christ in all things, and so to unite her death to the work of redemption. “Do whatever he tells you,” (Jn 2:5) are Mary's last words in the Gospel, and it would be fitting that she would follow him in word and deed.
Saved from Corruption
The Assumption confirms that even if Mary did die, she was preserved from corruption, even as Christ's body did not suffer corruption in the tomb. Corruption of Mary's body — the first tabernacle — would not be fitting. Mary was united to Christ in body and soul and so her body should not be separated from Christ, for the psalmist sings, “What profit would my death be, my going to the grave? Can dust give you praise or proclaim your truth?” (Ps 30:9).
As Mary's soul magnified the Lord so too did her body, and the grave could not be allowed to prevent her body from rejoicing with her spirit in God her Savior. In either case — death or no death — the Assumption testifies to the victory over death expected by all those united to Christ, and also to the resurrection of the body. This testimony is provided sufficiently by the Assumption alone, and does not require preservation from death in addition.
So either position is theologically defensible. Recently, however, during his long catechesis on Mary at his general audiences, the Holy Father did favor the position of the Blessed Mother having died. While certainly not a definitive teaching, it does fit with the balance of the tradition in the Latin Church. Death seems more fitting according to the theological argument that conformity to Christ is more significant than preservation from Original Sin.
The argument that Mary did not die emphasizes justice, wherein death is understood as a punishment first and foremost. Yet the plan of salvation belongs more to the order of love than to the order of justice. Death and suffering are not good in themselves, and indeed remain punishments for sin, but since Christ suffered and died the phenomena of suffering and death have been transformed. Not only has death lost its sting, but it takes on a salvific power for those with the eyes of faith.
The crucified Christ gave to those united with him the ability to embrace suffering and death in union with his passion. Through suffering and death those united to Christ have the power of participating in the redemption of the world. The great good of life — eternal life — can be served by suffering and a good death: “By the Blood of the Lamb, love for life did not deter them from death” (Rv 12:11).
Our Fall & Redemption
Death resulted from the fall of creation. Now through death comes the means of redemption. Redemption is an even greater act than creation, so the very punishment for losing creation's original holiness becomes the door to participating in its redemption. On the holiest of all nights, the Church sings in the Easter Vigil liturgy: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est. O felix culpa! (O most necessary sin of Adam, that was destroyed by the death of Christ. O happy fault!)
It is not a mark against Mary, co-redemptrix by virtue of her singular participation in Christ's saving work (cf. Lumen Gentium 57), to suffer death. Rather, it is her final offering in union with Christ. Christ himself did not spare his mother sufferings during life; rather he pointed her toward them. Mary is not spared suffering in the flight to Egypt, the words of Simeon at the Presentation, the words of Christ after being lost for three days, and at the foot of the cross. At the wedding in Cana (Jn 2:4) Christ is firm with his mother. And when his mother comes to speak to him (Mk 3:33-34) and when she is praised (Lk 11:27-28), Christ does not indulge in filial piety, but is harsh, insisting that union with him and his work is greater than kinship.
Christ could not confer any honor upon his mother greater than the fullest possible participation in his work of salvation. It is proper that Mary, having persevered even unto Calvary, would persevere unto imitating it herself. And the Father, looking with favor upon this final offering of his handmaid, would receive her soon after her death into heaven, body and soul, in imitation of the One whom she imitated in all things.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.