The Reality of Mary’s Assumption

Family Matters: Catholic Living

“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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.”

With these words, Pope Pius XII defined the assumption of Mary (which the Church celebrates as a solemnity on Aug. 15) as an article of the faith in 1950, at the end of his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (taken from the Latin of the document’s first few words, “the most bountiful God”). The definition, he wrote, carried with it the requirement of assent, declaring anyone who denies it cut off from the Church entirely.

But where did Pius obtain the authority to proclaim so clearly this Marian dogma? Formally, the Church had clarified that privilege of the papacy only 70 years earlier. At the First Vatican Council (1870-1871), the Council Fathers and Pope Pius IX promulgated the authority of papal infallibility on articles of faith — that is, elements that are undeniable within the Catholic faith. When such a definition of doctrine takes place, furthermore, it is final and “irreformable.” Vatican I’s clarification of infallibility more or less capped off a trend stretching back at least to 1302, when Boniface VIII drew heavily on the New Testament to declare in his bull Unam Sanctam “that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff,” whose authority had been given to Peter by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew.

While both Vatican I’s definition and Unam Sanctam appeared during highly charged geopolitical struggles in which the papacy was involved, they do establish a very long thread of figuring out the exact role of the pope in the Church. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) spoke on infallibility, too, in Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). In this area, Vatican II was something of a counterbalance to Vatican I, teaching that infallibility also extends to the collective bishops of the world “when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.” Importantly, the pope is the only bishop ensured by the Holy Spirit to speak infallibly on matters of doctrine as an individual; but, considering the world’s bishops as successors to the apostles, they can collectively make infallible proclamations when done so in complete unity with the Holy Father.

Years before Vatican II, Pope Pius XII himself anticipated this “collective infallibility.” In preparation for writing Munificentissimus Deus, the pope sent a letter to the world’s bishops asking if they judged it possible to cement Mary’s bodily assumption as an article of faith. The response, he wrote, “was almost unanimous.” The reality of Mary’s assumption had been taken for granted by many for quite some time: In the United States, parishes dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption had been around for at least a century already, in addition to its long-standing commemoration in the liturgy.

So while Pius made the Assumption an undeniable article of faith, the real interest of Munifcentissimus Deus lay in the exercise of infallibility. At Mass on the solemnity this year (and every year), you will hear throughout almost the exact words used by Pius to define this doctrine in the Collect (or “opening prayer”), Offertory, Preface and Post-Communion Prayer.

The final moment of Mary’s earthly existence is nothing less than the perfect endpoint of a life directed entirely toward bringing our own salvation into the world. Her own immaculate conception, free of original sin, created a spotless dwelling place for Christ later at the Annunciation. Having borne the Christ and attended his saving act of sacrifice on the cross, Mary provided one final witness to victory over death by joining her own Son, with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, both body and soul.

Michael Skaggs is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.