Must Catholics Insist Upon Mary's Assumption?

The New Testament places Jesus Christ and his Church at the center, as they should be. Mary’s significance becomes apparent through connections with Christ and the Church that Scripture affirms but does not fully clarify. It took the Church’s full recognition of Jesus’s divine Sonship and of Mary as the Mother of God before the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption emerged liturgically. Even then, legendary stories from well-meaning Christians, who sought to give the doctrine a historical flavor like that of Jesus’s Resurrection, damaged the plausibility of this truth about Mary.

Given these difficulties, which are only made more severe in an ecumenical context in which judgments about biblical clarity often have no place for typology, it should come as no surprise that discussion of Mary’s Assumption largely disappeared in Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council, especially among theologians who came of age in the years following the Council. The last significant theological discussion bearing upon Mary’s Assumption was prompted by Karl Rahner’s claim that this dogma means that all humans (including Mary) die into resurrection life.

Rahner’s view prompted a negative response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979. If Mary’s Assumption were merely an anthropological truth, as Rahner holds, then Jesus’s Resurrection would also be essentially a truth about human existence after death rather than about the radical inbreaking of God’s power in the raising of Jesus. Mary’s Assumption would not merit elevation to a dogma of the Church if, in fact, her body merely turned to dust in the grave. Although the Church has continued to teach the doctrine catechetically and to celebrate it liturgically, Mary’s Assumption has not been a significant topic in Catholic theology for a number of decades.

Why, then, resurrect this topic today? One reason consists in Peter’s injunction, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). Mary’s Assumption concretely reveals the saving power of Christ and his will to unite his elect intimately to himself. In his supreme goodness, the incarnate Son does not will to be alone, either on earth or in heaven.

The eschatological Church is already present, in an embodied way, with Christ at the right hand of the Father; the new Adam has crowned the new eve. Mary’s fiat, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), might seem to be self-abnegating and self-diminishing. In fact, Mary shows us not to fear (in the words of Pope Benedict XVI) “that God might be a ‘rival’ in our life, that with his greatness he might encroach on our freedom, our vital space. She knew that if God is great, we too are great.”

Given the Reformation controversies, however, why must Catholics and Orthodox insist upon the truth of Mary’s Assumption? My book Mary's Bodily Assumption attempts to answer this question. One part of the answer is ecclesiological, rooted in the work of the exalted Christ and his Holy Spirit in ensuring the Church’s faithful mediation of divine revelation. The truth of Mary’s Assumption has been received and handed down in the Church for well over a millennium, so the Holy Spirit’s efficacious governance of the Church in the central task of teaching the Christian mysteries is at issue.

Another part of the answer has to do with the interpretation of Scripture. Drawing upon the work of Protestant scholars, I have tried to show that typological reasoning (of the kind employed by Jesus and Paul) can and should be used doctrinally by the Church in response to the promptings of Scripture’s own typological portraits of Mary. As Ralph Russell points out, echoing numerous other theologians, typological exegesis reveals the meaning of Mary’s motherhood by enabling Scripture “to be seen in entirety. Then the ‘Woman’ in Genesis will be answered by the Woman in the Book of Revelation (ch. 12), the Fall will go with the Annunciation, Adam with Christ (cf. St. Paul), Eve with Mary.” Admittedly, typological exegesis of this kind—whose perspicacity will be most evident in the liturgy—often makes little sense to Christians today, who have been taught to seek a different kind of clarity in Scripture.

Third, I argued that the Church’s affirmation of Mary’s bodily Assumption is also eminently fitting. What we know of Christ Jesus accords with the belief that he did not discard the new Ark of the Covenant in which he dwelt, and also that he did not fail to reward the new eve who, by his grace, shared uniquely in his Incarnation and Passion. Mary’s motherhood was certainly not a merely physical reality from which the adult Jesus distanced himself.

As Benedict XVI says, because Mary “had made room for the Lord in her soul,” she “really became the true Temple where God made himself incarnate.” Her body can never lose this dignity: “Mary is ‘blessed’ because—totally, in body and soul and for ever—she became the Lord’s dwelling place.” Her bodily Assumption, then, precedes the general resurrection because of her unique participation in her Son’s Incarnation and thus also (as his mother) in his public ministry and Crucifixion. Having uniquely dwelt with her, her Son uniquely exalts her.

I do not expect my arguments in Mary's Bodily Assumption to necessarily persuade those who do not presently believe in Mary’s Assumption, although I do hope that the biblical character of my arguments is appreciated. Speaking for evangelical Christians who do not believe that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, Tim Perry argues that the historical person of Mary can be found in Paul, Mark, and Matthew, whereas Luke and John, with their penchant for typology, overlay the historical Mary with “Mary the symbol.” 

According to Perry, “Mary the symbol” quickly overshadowed and ultimately nearly suffocated “Mary the person” in the history of the Church. To my mind, Perry thereby mistakenly denigrates the Gospels of Luke and John. He also undermines the biblical testimony to the Church as the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 2:15).

The exalted Christ is with his eschatological Church, upon which he has poured out his Spirit, “to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20). Nonetheless, by recognizing a strong “typological link between Mary and Israel in the pages of the New Testament” and by affirming that Mary’s fiat involved a real co-operation with God’s saving work, Perry opens up the possibility of fruitful discussion between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants about Scripture’s typological portraits of Mary.

Not surprisingly, contemporary Catholic criticism of the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption tends to follow the same path as Protestant criticism, although with less appreciation for the authority and truth of Scripture. For instance, Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints presents Mary, in her death, as being simply like all the redeemed: “her historical life having ended, she died and passed into the unimaginable, life-giving embrace of the living God. Now she joins the company of loving, faithful people who encourage those still running the race.” 

Indeed, Johnson warns against “the harmful eve-Mary dichotomy” and criticizes Lumen Gentium for “the inadequacy of its biblical exegesis, which merges all Marian texts together without regard for genre or author and which conflates biblical narrative with later dogmatic statements.” Since she rules out the typological comparison of Eve and Mary, she does not see the depth of Mary’s participation in the mission of her Son. Her account of Mary’s death lacks appreciation for Scripture’s use of typology, as well as for the Church’s ability to communicate the truth of divine revelation.

But there is another problem that seems to arise from the claim that Scripture, as interpreted by the Church, typologically reveals Mary’s Assumption. Namely, does this claim require that the authors of Luke, John, and Revelation—all of whom wrote after Mary’s death—must have known that Mary had been bodily assumed into heaven and encoded this fact into their writings? The answer is no. One need simply hold that Mary’s Assumption belongs to the apostolic deposit of faith, which includes the typological witness of Scripture.

Insofar as the truth of Mary’s Assumption is rooted in the New Testament’s typological portrait of Mary, then the truth of Mary’s Assumption belongs to the apostolic deposit of faith. The same Holy Spirit who taught this truth through the typological portraits of Mary, especially as found in Luke 1–2, John 2 and 19, and Revelation 11–12 (in light of Genesis 3:15), also taught this truth in the Church beginning in the late fifth century as part of unfolding and developing the deposit of faith (see Jn 16:12–14).

How does the development of the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption compare with the development of other Christian doctrines? It is not as though most other Christian doctrines followed an easy path of development or have been widely accepted by contemporary biblical scholars. The leading Christian biblical scholars today, for example, argue that the faith of the New Testament is not Trinitarian but binitarian (Larry Hurtado) or unitarian (James D. G. Dunn). Study of the fourth century controversies about the divinity of the Son and Spirit demonstrates that the biblical portraits of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, like the biblical portraits of Mary as the New Eve and new Ark of the Covenant, needed to be reflected upon liturgically and theologically in order for their full meaning to become manifest.

Thus the messy human history of belief in Mary’s Assumption, not least the legendary elements that color the early presentations of the doctrine, does not negate the truth of the doctrine. Although Mary’s Assumption is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, Mary is mentioned, and the mysteries of her life demand the typological reflection that we find wherever she is present, including Revelation 12. Demand for biblical clarity before a doctrine is accepted cannot rule out the typological reasoning omnipresent among the biblical authors and Jesus himself. It should also recognize the clarity of Scripture’s testimony to the Church’s ongoing interpretative authority.

Even so, now that the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption is a marker of division, would the Church be better off without this doctrine? By no means, no more than Christ on earth (or in heaven) would be better off without Mary. A helpful approach in this regard is adopted by the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, who holds that Mary’s Assumption sheds light on:

The beginning of a vaster (dare we even say, cosmic or universal?) assumption. That vaster assumption is in progress now. Wherever in the Church militant here on earth there is a gleam of true glory, a faithful act of discipleship, a prayer offered in faith, a hand stretched out in love, there is assumption, human life is being lifted up to God by God. 

Although Mary’s Assumption is unique, it is also representative. We too are in the process of being glorified; indeed the whole creation is in the process of coming to share in Christ’s glory. As Paul says,

The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:21–23). 

The Church needs to insist more, not less, upon Christ’s eschatological conquest of corruption and death, a conquest whose fruits already characterize his eschatological Church.

Although the Reformed theologian Kevin Vanhoozer does not share Macquarrie’s positive view of the Church’s Marian teaching, he provides an illuminating description of doctrine that at least helps us to understand the place of the Marian doctrines. Vanhoozer states that Christian “doctrine is both instruction for understanding the drama and direction for participating fittingly in it.” As a reality of faith, the Assumption of Mary instructs us about the saving drama and calls us to intimate participation in it. Indeed, the Assumption of Mary shows us that Christ invites the most intimate possible sharing in his victorious Pasch. Reversing Eve’s disobedience, Mary shares in the Paschal victory of the new Adam: Christ has made for himself a real partner in the work of salvation, a partner who already shares in his exaltation by the power of his Pasch and by his superabundant grace.

This partner is not merely Mary the individual, but rather is Mary the type of the Church: Daughter Zion. Each August 15, then, the Church liturgically celebrates the wondrous truth that, through Jesus and his Holy Spirit, Mary has become the first to receive the fullness of the promise that we are to be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor 15:54). This victory—Christ’s victory—is already having its effect.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from the book Mary's Bodily Assumption. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Sano di Pietro, Assumption, 1448; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Matthew Levering

Matthew Levering is the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary. He is the author of many, many books including Mary's Bodily Assumption.

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