Going to the source: Some light on the Assumption of Mary from Munificentissimus Deus

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823)

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) (WikiPaintings)

I don’t have a lot of time for an update today, and am in no mood for argument; but this is an important day: the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the celebration of our Blessed Mother being assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life, as a sign of the promised resurrection for each of us. For me it is especially meaningful: for on this day seven years ago, I received in my own body a foretaste of that resurrection.

I made a meaty post last year which expounded some of the scriptural and patristic testimonies to the Assumption; it is worth a read. Today I took a few minutes to read and reflect on Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution by which Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Faith on 1 November 1950. If any one is doubtful or insecure about the Catholic Church’s promulgation of a dogma that is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture — if any one feels that the Magisterium of the Church is free to pull fanciful doctrines out of hats, to invent and declare to a gullible public whatever is expedient or profitable for the prelates of the age — he need only read this document, to understand the prayer, caution, and deliberation that goes into such a declaration; the certainty and unanimity in a doctrine that is required; the research and reasoning and support from the deposit of faith that must form its foundation.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Here I’ll give a few quotations that stood out to me in particular. I would encourage anyone who is curious to learn more to read the whole thing (it’s not a very lengthy document), and read my post from last year.

Pope Pius XII, in a 1946 encyclical letter to all the bishops of the Church, Deiparae Virginis Mariae, asked what they thought of the notion of promulgating the Assumption (which has been held since the earliest centuries of the Church) as a dogma — if it could or should be done. To this he received a nearly unanimous response in favor (§16):

But those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” (Acts 20:28) gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus [1854]), affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege [the Assumption] as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly (First Vatican Council, Dei filius [1870]).

In other words: the near-unanimous response in favor proved that the teaching authority of the Church was in agreement with the faith of the Church.

Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), and therefore absolutely without error, carries out the commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefiled, adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them. For, as the Vatican Council teaches, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by his revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by his assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.” (First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus [1870]).

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto (WikiPaintings)

This is where it leapt out at me: To the mind of the Church, to all the faithful who petitioned for the dogmatization of the Assumption, to all the bishops who affirmed it, this was not the promulgation of a “new doctrine,” but the protection of the Divine Revelation handed down by the Apostles, that had been a part of the deposit of faith for time immemorial.

Pope Pius then went on to lay out many testimonies and evidences from both Scripture and Tradition which affirm the truth of the Assumption. Noting that the Church had celebrated the Assumption in her liturgy since ancient times, he declared (§20):

However, since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ — truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly.

We today are so fixated on primary sources, on declaring proofs for everything we do; but Pope Pius here makes an important point: that ancient Christians based their liturgy on the faith revealed to them, and that the Fathers who expounded on the Assumption did so from that very tradition handed down from the Apostles, not from the surviving liturgical texts which now we look to as proofs.

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin (WikiPaintings).

Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith — this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians — we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.

Pope Pius concluded (§41) that the overwhelming weight of evidence supports this declaration of the Assumption: not only its basis in Scripture, but the certainty in the minds of the faithful, in its celebration in liturgy since the most ancient times, in its harmony with all other revealed truths (something I wanted in particular to point out to critics), and in the extensive and learned exposition by all the theologians of the ages. This, truly, was not a case of “making stuff up”: it was a setting down of what was already known and believed.

3 thoughts on “Going to the source: Some light on the Assumption of Mary from Munificentissimus Deus

  1. Excellent post, Joseph! If it hadn’t been for Mary’s Yes to God, we would have no salvation in Jesus Christ! May Christ continue to dwell with you, brethren!

  2. Pingback: A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis | The Lonely Pilgrim

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