August 16, 2019

Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510

I have absolutely no desire to denigrate Jesus’ Mother. She must have been a wonderfully faith-filled, attentive, and caring mother. She remains as well a source of strength and encouragement for any woman who has lost a son or a husband especially through a violent death. Actually a source of strength and encouragement for all of us. No wonder she is also Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Consolation, and Mother of Perpetual Help.

Reflecting, on August 15th — Feast of the Assumption — this week, it struck me, nevertheless, that the Assumption is indeed a good case study for official Catholic teachings past and present.

The Assumption of Mary is a Roman Catholic dogma: a belief which must be accepted and affirmed by all Catholics. Pope Pius XII proclaimed this dogma, “infallibly,” on November 1, 1950. The document issued that day taught that the “Immaculate Virgin,” the Mother of Jesus, “after the completion of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” This means that after her death, Jesus’ Mother was assumed into heaven, body and soul, in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The doctrine further states that she was glorified in heaven and is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”

The dogma of the Assumption, however, is based solely on very post-apostolic church traditions and has no foundation in the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian Scriptures say very little, in fact, about the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark names her only once (6:3) and mentions her as Jesus’ Mother, without mentioning her name: in 3:31. The Gospel According to Luke mentions Mary the Mother of Jesus most often: identifying her by name twelve times and all of these in the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34). The Gospel According to Matthew mentions her by name five times, four of these (1:16,18,20; 2:11) in the infancy narrative and only once (13:55) outside the infancy narrative.

The Gospel According to John refers to the Mother of Jesus twice but never mentions her by name. She makes two appearances in the Johannine Gospel. She is first seen at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-12) which is mentioned only in this Gospel. The second reference, also exclusively listed in this Gospel, has the Mother of Jesus standing near the cross of her son together with the (also unnamed) “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 19:25-26). John 2:1-12, by the way, is the only text in the Christian canonical scriptures in which the Mother of Jesus speaks to, and about, the adult Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, the Mother of Jesus, and the “brothers of Jesus,” are mentioned in the company of the eleven, gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:14).

It took a good four or five hundred years, after the earthly days of Jesus’ Mother, for the development of an imaginative and creative Marian tradition that became the basis for nineteenth and twentieth century infallibly-proclaimed Virgin Mary dogmas. There is really no big list of infallible teachings. That is because there are only two, and both are about Mary: her Immaculate Conception, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 even before the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and her bodily Assumption into heaven.

In the second century, St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 to 165 CE) gave us the understanding that the Mother of Jesus had always been a virgin. In the fourth century, Christian theologians decided Mary the Mother of Jesus was a very unique kind of virgin: her hymen was not even broken in childbirth. Baby Jesus simply passed miraculously through the wall. (A bit of theological hymenology by celibate males?) But then the learned men had to deal with another Bible-based theological problem.

In the Gospel According to Mark and in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” As the doctrine of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became increasingly widespread so did confusion about Jesus’ siblings. Theologians had to harmonize the New Testament with the new dogma (a bit of biblical revisionism) ….and so “brothers and sisters” became “cousins.” Problem solved……

The fourth century was also a particularly fruitful time for creative religious archeology. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena (c. 246 to 330 CE) was a strong supporter of the developing Mary-Mother-of-Jesus cult and created what one could call ecclesiastical archeology. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity and 10 years later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Helena told her son they needed some Christian holy places.

Helena was quite a researcher….. Everywhere she went, local tour guides (who were well paid) helped her find “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus. She then had churches built on the spot! She found, for example, the cave of the nativity (or so the local people had told her), the house of the Last Supper (or so the local people had told her), the Garden of Gethsemane (or so the local people……), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the cross itself. She even found the very tree from which the wood for Jesus’ cross was cut!

Every shrine that Helena discovered was honored with imperial patronage and became a profitable pilgrimage site as well. With each shrine went a Mary festival.

But back to my reflection about the Assumption……

The world view and the theological perspective that underlie the Assumption belong to an archaic pre-Galileo cosmology: the older flat earth model of Hebrew biblical and early and medieval Christian cosmology. Over the flat earth was a dome-shaped rigid canopy called the firmament. God the Father’s throne was in the firmament and he controlled the earthly and human events down below. Heaven was understood as the place and space around God high up in the firmament.

Sitting at the right hand of God the Father was Jesus, his Son, whom he raised from the dead and elevated up to heaven, on a cloud, on Jesus’ Ascension Day.

Later, in the seventh century, thanks especially to the theology of John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) and Gregory of Tours (c. 538 to 594 CE), the church developed the understanding (another theological assumption) that the Mother of Jesus, as well, was carried on a cloud and assumed body and soul up to heaven.

And my point today?

What do contemporary Catholic believers do when they suspect that a dogma or doctrine safeguarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its best scholars?

There must be an avenue in the Catholic Church for open, respectful, and intellectually honest dialogue about serious kinds of theological questions. On the top of that list today I would put recognizing and supporting women’s ordination. (I think Mary would like that.) There are of course a great number of questions to be explored, especially when it comes to human sexuality and what is “natural” or “unnatural.” Theological exploration is an open field….or should be.

– Jack

14 thoughts on “An Assumption

  1. HI Jack,
    I agree with you but….what do you think about the visions of St. Bernadette of Lourdes who spoke with a Lady who told Bernadette that she was the “Immaculate Conception “; these last same 2 words were used by Pope Pious IX in the proclamation of the dogma,just at the time of Bernadette’ visions. Bernadette was illitterate,lived in the Pyrenees mountains ,there were no medias…… This coincidence makes me think it over….
    Many thanks for your insight!

    1. I have no doubts that Bernadette had what I would say was a genuine religious experience.

      Interestingly, she described the apparition as uo petito damizelo (“a tiny maiden”) of about twelve years old. Soubirous insisted that the apparition was no taller than herself. At 1.40 metres (4 ft 7 in) tall, Soubirous was diminutive even by the standards of other poorly nourished children.

      Bernadette Soubirous described the apparition as dressed in a flowing white robe, with a blue sash around her waist. This was the uniform of a religious group called the Children of Mary, which, on account of her poverty, Soubirous was not permitted to join (although she was admitted after the apparitions). Her Aunt Bernarde was a long-time member.

      The Immaculate Conception was proclaimed as a doctrine in 1854. Immediately after that papal proclamation the phrase “immaculate conception” was heard in homilies and devotional literature that Bernadette’s aunt would have known about and talked about. Bernadette’s first experience was in 1858.

      Yes people do have genuine religious experiences — deep experiences that still make use of language and images already known to the person having the religious experience.

      I have been to Lourdes and found it a very moving place….It is too bad, however, that the statue that currently stands in the niche within the grotto, created by the sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch in 1864, depicts a figure which is not only older and taller than Soubirous’s description, but also more in keeping with orthodox and traditional representations of the Virgin Mary.

      When she first saw the statue, Bernadette Soubirous was greatly disappointed because it was not a good representation of her vision!

      Warmest regards – Jack

      1. The teaching on Perpetual virginity or Assumption brings me to the question – what does it mean to believe it? If I have to make a decision in my life which will depend on belief or disbelief, the question will have a clear contures. Nevertheless, I am not able to imagine the nature of such a decision. Being a member of the Catholic church does not mean that ALL the teaching is equally important for me. As a layman, I simply do not claim opposite opinions in public. Nevertheless, the very existence of this sort of improbable and unexplained teaching casts a shadow on other, more practical rules. It is a remainder that teachings should not be applied blindly, i.e. without thinking about their factual and poetic part.

      2. Well said. People can accept or reject the perpetual virginity and Assumption and life goes on. Frankly I don’t get into arguments about it. I state my personal position….I acknowledge that other people may have a different position. But if and when I am told I MUST accept Mary’s perpetual virginity and Assumption, I react because they don’t connect with my contemporary understanding of reality and theology.

        Yes this raises questions about other issues for sure….

  2. Jack, I’d like to hear your view on the root epistemological question. As you say, the worldview of the dogma was based on pre-Galileo cosmology. There is also the interpretation/fact problem. Udoli’s question above points to it: why is it important that we all agree to hold this one intepretation as fact? Does it matter that people prefer various interpretations of what may have happened at Mary’s death? This question arises in many of the Church teachings. I can see the need for agreement on a single interpretation where the direction of mission is involved, but for personal piety? Bottom line: doesn’t the conceptualization of “truth” have to change in the Church’s culture as it has in Western culture over the 20th Century?

      1. Yes, “we are always moving toward the fullness of truth and not yet there.” Can you go further and say that whatever theological interpretation the official Church declares as its preferred interpretation is still interpretation and not revealed “fact”? What do they mean by “revealed” truth? Is there a doctrine about “infused knowledge”, and that bishops receive infused knowledge (revealed “fact”) as part of the grace of state? How does the “sensus fidei” factor in? You can see that I am confused about knowledge and how we come to it.

      2. Paula, all theology whether from the pope or bishops — the teaching authority — or from a great or humble theologian is an interpretation of our faith experience. Theology is “faith seeking understanding” and necessarily is expressed in terms of the knowledge and culture and language and symbols of people at various times in history. This is not relativism because there is a golden thread that connects the past with the present and points us toward future understanding.

        Sensus Fidei or Sensus Fidelium means that the people (everyone lay and ordained) united in the spirit of Christ carry forward the living tradition of essential beliefs throughout history. Ideally the bishops are overseers but they too must be in close contact with the community of faith and continual dialogue. Synods and councils are very important to evaluate human experiences, changing understandings, and changing language. When bishops stop listening to the people, problems can arise as we all know so well.

        There is no infused knowledge in anyone. We learn from our experiences and education. We all need ongoing education. Even bishops.

        Revelation is an understanding of who God is for us and who we are in relationship to God. We find it in Sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the people of God.

        Some brief responses. Take care! Many kind regards. – Jack

  3. Jack, reminds me of how we studied Mariology in the seminary: Decet, potuit, fecet. Never made any sense to me, but we didn’t dare question. Thanks for your insights, as usual.

  4. Dear Jack,
    The interactions in the previous Q/A have been fascinating and enlightening. You and your wise readers have asked the necessary question: just how much do we HAVE to believe and, if I doubt, where does that put me on the “heresy-o-meter?” Sometimes it feels that certain dogmatic positions are to give us simple folk as concrete “truths” to hang onto so we don’t get confused by the complicated stuff. For me, the take-away on the whole Mariology discussions are that she is the one human being who truly lived her whole life focused on doing God’s will and that she pulled it off, which means she deserved to have something better than the rest of us. Regardless of the minutiae, I wish I could live the life of devotion that Mary did despite all the obvious misery that being the Mother of God must have entailed. If she isn’t in heaven now in body and soul, I’ll bet big money that she will be there someday!

    1. Many thanks Frank. Well said. (But I don’t think there are any bodies in heaven. Even Jesus’ resurrected body is not the one he used walking around Nazareth….) Warmest regards. – Jack

      1. I agree, and that where this ludicrous doctrine blows up. Whatever heaven is, it is not in the space time continuum. Perhaps a nice devotion for some faithful, but an infallible truth? I don’t think so.

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