Today we celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, body and soul. An article of faith dogmatically defined by Pope Piux XII in 1950 in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, the belief is obligatory among Catholics.
One controversy, however, remains: Did the Blessed Virgin die before she was assumed into heaven?
Pope Pius XII deliberately left that specific question unanswered, stating ambiguously (as the matter was still disputed) 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.”
What does it mean for the Virgin Mary to “have completed the course of her earthly life?”
The question remains open.
That which follows is excerpted from this article, and gives a good summation of the arguments in favor of the opinion that Mary never died before her bodily assumption.
It is important to remember that the Church has deliberately left the question open for debate.
My purpose in posting it is not to anathematize those who believe the Virgin Mary died prior to her Assumption, but only to show that there are some weighty arguments to support a contrary opinion.
Moreover, what better way to spend the Feast of the Assumption than studying the life of Our Lady?
Excerpted from the article “Mary’s Death and Bodily Assumption”
by Fr. Lawrence P. Everrett, C.Ss.R, STD
“In the first three centuries there are absolutely no references in the authentic works of the Fathers or ecclesiastical writers to the death or bodily immortality of Mary. Nor is there any mention of a tomb of Mary in the first centuries of Christianity. The veneration of the tomb of the Blessed Virgin at Jerusalem began about the middle of the fifth century; and even here there is no agreement as to whether its locality was in the Garden of Olives or in the Valley of Josaphat. Nor is any mention made in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus (431) of the fact that the Council, convened to defend the Divine Maternity of the Mother of God, is being held in the very city selected by God for her final resting place. Only after the Council did the tradition begin which placed her tomb in that city.
The earliest known (non-Apocryphal) mention concerning the end of Mary’s life appears in the writings of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, the ancient Salamina, in the isle of Cyprus. Born in Palestine, we may assume that he was well aware of the traditions there. Yet we find these words in his Panarion or Medicine Chest (of remedies for all heresies), written in c. 377: “Whether she died or was buried we know not.“7 Speaking of the cautious language used by St. Epiphanius, Father Roschini says: “To understand his words fully we must remember that he was conscious, when writing, of two heresies which were then living and dangerous: that of the Antidicomarianites, and that of the Collyridians. The former denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, the latter, erring in the opposite direction, maintained that divine worship should be given to her. To assert that Our Lady died was to give a handle to the one heresy (for it was to suggest that the body of Mary was subject to the corruption of the tomb, and thus minimize her prerogatives); to assert that she did not die was to encourage the other.”8 And with the exception of a so-called contemporary of Epiphanius, Timothy of Jerusalem, who said: “Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because He who dwelt in her took her to the regions of the Ascension,”9 no early writer ever doubted the fact of her death. They did not, however, examine the question; they merely took the fact of her death for granted.
Apparently influenced by the apocryphal Transitus writings of the fifth to the seventh centuries, later Fathers and Church writers likewise spoke of the death of Mary as a fact taken for granted. For all men, including Christ, died: therefore, Mary, too. Like their predecessors, they did not consider ex professo the theological arguments for or against.
St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) appears to be the first to cast some doubt upon the fact of Mary’s death. Obviously ignoring the Apocrypha, he said of the death of Mary: “. . . nowhere does one read of her death. Although, as some say, her sepulchre may be found in the valley of Josaphat.”10 Tusaredo, a Bishop in the Asturias province of Spain in the eighth century, wrote: “Of the glorious Mary, no history teaches that she suffered martyrdom or any other kind of death.”11 Although St. Andrew of Crete (d. 720) generally introduced much theological argumentation into his writings, he states, with very little argumentation, that Mary died because her Son died.12 The same is true of a similar teaching of St. John Damascene (d. 749).13 And about one hundred years later, Theodore Abou-Kurra (d. c. 820) likened the death of Mary to the sleep of Adam in the Garden when God formed Eve from one of his ribs.14 This, obviously, was not a true death.
All the great Scholastics of the thirteenth century taught that Mary died. The principal reason for their so teaching was obviously the fact that they denied the Immaculate Conception in the sense in which it was defined by Pope Pius IX.15 Thus we read in the writings of St. Bonaventure: “If the Blessed Virgin was free from original sin, she was also exempt from the necessity of dying; therefore, either her death was an injustice or she died for the salvation of the human race. But the former supposition is blasphemous, implying that God is not just; and the latter, too, is a blasphemy against Christ for it implies that His Redemption is insufficient. Both are therefore erroneous and impossible. Therefore Our Blessed Lady was subject to original sin.”16
After the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 the question of whether or not Our Blessed Lady died gradually became a subject of wide theological discussion and is today one of the most widely disputed Mariological questions. The impetus to further study out of which arose the present state of dispute was given by the writings of Dominic Arnaldi of Genoa who died in the year 1895. Arnaldi defended the thesis that Our Blessed Lady’s complete freedom from sin demanded her freedom from the penalty of death.17
Today we have diametrically opposed views on the death of Mary supported by outstanding Mariologists. The most outspoken proponents of the thesis that Mary did not die are Roschini and Gallus.18 Father Freithoff, O.P., expressed the view that “the death of Mary is not certain, either historically or from revelation.”19 On the other hand, Father C. Balic, O.F.M., maintains that “the terminus a quo of the Assumption is the death of Our Lady, the terminus ad quem is the glorification of her body in heaven. The object of the Assumption in recto is the glorification of the living body, and ex obliquo her death and resurrection.”20 Father J. F. Bonnefoy, O.F.M., goes so far as to state that “the death of the Most Holy Virgin may be considered as historically proved and explicitly revealed: as such (explicitly revealed) it may be the subject of a dogmatic definition: there is no reason why it should not be.”21 And the Mariological Week held at Salamanca (Spain) in 1949, which was devoted exclusively to the question of the death of Mary, sent a petition to the Holy See requesting the definition “. . . of the bodily Assumption of the B. V. Mary into heaven, after death. . . .“22 It is little wonder, then, that Cardinal Pizzardo, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, in an address on the occasion of the First International Mariological Congress in Rome (1950) referred to the question of the end of the life of the Blessed Virgin as a very obscure problem, and one which demands further study and clarification by theologians.23
All theologians agree, of course, that Mary was not subject to death as a penalty for sin. However, God willed that “she die for higher reasons pertaining to her relationship with Christ and the part she was to play in the work of Redemption.”24 The reasons brought forth by those who maintain that Our Blessed Mother actually died may be reduced to the following two:
a) Conformity to Christ: The condition of the Mother should not be better than that of her divine Son. The Verbum willingly assumed passible and mortal flesh and came into the world “in the likeness of sinful flesh,”25 in order that, through it, He might redeem us from our sins. As the Mother of the passible and mortal Redeemer from whom He took His mortal flesh, Mary, too, had to be passible and mortal. She did not, however, voluntarily assume mortal flesh as did her divine Son as something from which she was exempt. This was God’s will for her although she died not as a penalty for sin but pro conditione carnis.
This argument, however, might justly be called a post factum argument, proposed to explain the fact of Mary’s death after her death had been taken for granted. However, in its favor is the theological axiom: lex orandi statuit legem credendi. And until recently these words were in the Secret of the Mass for the Assumption. One may argue, however, that the Liturgy in this instance merely stated a popular belief, one which everyone took for granted in view of the fact of Christ’s death. For, the Second Council of Orange is quite explicit in its teaching that those who hold that the penalty of death (reatus poenae) is transmitted to the body without the transmission of sin or the death of the soul (reatus culpae) to all the children of Adam, do an injustice to God.26 Hence, where there is no sin there can be no obligatory death of the body in a child of Adam. Hence, it would appear that if we are to defend the fact of Mary’s death we must look to another reason, one wherein the acceptance of death by Mary would be a voluntary act. Theologians see this in Mary’s role of Coredeemer of the human race.
b) Mary’s role of Coredeemer: Due to the teaching of the Second Council of Orange, many theologians who maintain that Mary died claim that she had a right to immortality but, like her Son, freely accepted death in order that she might coredeem the human race together with Him. Yet the objection is raised against this opinion that Mary should then have died on Calvary with Christ. For, with the death and resurrection of Christ the Redemption was completed in actu primo and, consequently, the Coredemption. This, too, goes counter to the traditionally accepted belief that Mary coredeemed us by a spiritual compassion, suffering in her soul the agony Christ suffered for us in His Body. The Constitution Munificentissimus Deus leaves the question open. In the words of the definition death is not mentioned but only “having completed the course of her earthly life.” The question of the death of Mary is not treated as a subject bearing upon the Assumption. True, the Holy Father frequently mentions the death of the Blessed Virgin in the body of the document, but in every instance he quotes someone else. He does not give his own views on the subject. Consequently, I believe we can say with Father Roschini that “the question of Mary’s death is a matter for free discussion.”