God Is Near, Mary Is Very Near: Benedict XVI on the Dogma of Mary’s Assumption


In the Roman Catholic calendar, August 15th is dedicated to the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This is the last dogma that the Roman Catholic Church has promulgated in its history. In facts it was in 1950 that Pius XII issued it as a binding belief for the Catholic faith. Here is how it was defined then and how the Catechism of the Catholic Church accounts for it (n. 966): “the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son”.

From his Summer residence in Castel Gandolfo (25 km from Rome) where he has just completed writing his third book on Jesus, on August 15th Benedict XVI gave a homily on the significance of this dogma for the Church today. While it is interesting to read what the theologian Pope has to say about it, at the same time it is always difficult for a Protestant to address the Marian dogmas in an emotionally detached and a theologically calm way. Yet the exercise is inevitable given the important weight that Mariology has in Roman Catholic life.

The Liturgical Driving Force

In the first part of the homily Pope Ratzinger explains the reasons that were behind the decision of the Church to define the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption: “This truth of faith was known by the Tradition of the Church, was affirmed by the Fathers of the Church and was above all a relevant aspect of the devotion to the Mother of Christ. This liturgical element was the driving force that lead to the formulation of this dogma: it is an act of praise and exaltation of the Holy Virgin”.

While it may be historically questionable to argue the unanimous consensus of the Fathers (which Fathers? At what time?) on this aspect of Mariology, the most important point is the recognition that the dogma grew in the context of popular piety and liturgy, rather than Scripture. As many angles of Roman Catholic Mariology, this dogma too is a reflection of a popular devotion which was left unchecked by Biblical standards and developed across the centuries without being governed by the Word of God.

It is fair to say that Benedict XVI quotes the Bible at this point and argues that this dogma is an outworking of what Mary herself prayed in the Magnificat: “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). However, there is a gulf between the prophetic utterance about the blessedness of Mary and the highly elaborated Marian dogma of 1950. This biblical support is too loose and vague to define a binding belief such as the bodily assumption of Mary.

The dogma of Mary’s assumption is an example of how the lex orandi, lex credenda dictum (i.e. “the law of prayer is the law of belief”) could work as a self-contained and generative principle of the development of Roman Catholic dogmas. While it is true that we believe what we pray and vice versa, it is important to define what are the standards of the Church’s prayerful life in order for it not to go astray. Since for Rome these standards are the ones of Tradition which contains Scripture but is bigger than Scripture, it is no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church can promulgate dogmas that are historically dependent and theologically based on piety rather than the Bible.

Mary is very near

Drawing on some implications of this Marian dogma, Benedict XVI’s homily underlines the nearness of Mary to every man. “Mary has such a big heart that all creation can enter it, as the ex-voto (i.e. votive offerings) from all over the world demonstrate. Mary is near, she can listen, she can help, she is near to us all. God is near and Mary, as she is united to God, is very near and has a heart as big as God’s”.

Here is another example of how a devotion can develop and expand to the point of becoming something other than a Biblical form of Christian piety. What is striking is the comparison between the nearness of God and the nearness of Mary. She is thought of as being nearer than God is. This phrase, in all its apparent simplicity, has enormous theological and pastoral significance. It indicates that Mary is closer than His Son, that she is the first mediator to God, and that she is more readily available for help.

Usually, Mariological language is crafted is such a way as to never downplay the person and the work of Christ. This comparison, however, demonstrates that even Pope Ratzinger believes that although God is near, Mary in even nearer to us. Is the full incarnation of the Son of God, his full humanity and divinity, and the uniqueness of His mediatorship safeguarded and honored by this statement? If you blur the “Scripture Alone” principle, you end up in blurring the “Christ Alone” one.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 21st August 2012

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. I don’t want to add anything to this excellent article by Leonardo De Chirico. Rather I’d like to share some of my observations, since I am living in Bavaria, the most Roman Catholic country in Germany which is also the native country of the Pope.

    Mariology and Marianism are both deeply rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition. I find that many Catholics, male and female, are attracted by being devoted to Mary if they experienced some lack of love, especially in their childhood. Be that the presence of a despotic father who strictly forced the RC belief system on them, or/and the presence of a weak but compassionate mother who led them to believe in the compassionate Mother/sinless Virgin Mary. Sometimes their own mother died earlier than their father, and they unconsciously project their negative male father image onto God, the Father, and even to Christ who is merely considered as the strict judge of all mankind, and not as the ‘True Lover’ of the human soul described in the Song of Songs.

    I know some women who had autocratic loveless fathers, and these women love to celebrate every Marianic feast day. Not uncommonly, they are frequently married to the same type of man their father had been. When I tell them about my intimate relationship with Jesus, the reaction is, “???” for they can’t imagine this being a pleasant experience since Jesus is a ‘man’, and men are said to be autocrats.

    Thinking of some famous Marianic devotees, I am particularly reminded of Bernard de Clairvaux, Thérèse de Lisieux, and John Paul II. Precisely the two latter believers lost their mother in their early childhood which is a terrible experience for every child, isn’t it. In this respect I have learned to comprehend the possible (psychological) reasons for Marianic devotion, i.e. the deep longing for a supernatural mother figure.

    On the other hand, I admit that my Jesuanic heart is tensed up every time I am confronted with bright eyes due to intercessions addressed to Mary, since I am reminded of Jeremiah’s warning against idolatry as for the queen of heaven (Jer 7:18, 44:17-25), and of the prophesy in Rev 17.

    On his last visit in Germany in 2011, Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope, expressed the view that he couldn’t imagine that Jesus would turn down anything His mother would request from Him. This utterance made me very sad. Wasn’t it Jesus Himself who revealed His Lordship toward His mother at least three times?
    First, as twelve years old by having remained in the temple, His Father’s dwelling place (of the Old Covenant) without informing His parents.
    Second, when Jesus worked His first miracle by making the water wine as He addressed his well-meaning mother who was rushing ahead by replying to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (Jn 2:9).
    Third, as Jesus was teaching in the midst of a crowd of people, and was told that his mother and siblings would like to see Him, He answered, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Lk 8:21)

    1. Actually your quote is from John 2:4.
      In John 2:9 Jesus does what his Mother asked of him, even though he had previously hesitated to do so.

      Luke 8:21 makes more sense if you read it through from Luke 8:18. In the full context, it is clear that Jesus was driving a point home with his listeners. The point being that we must hear the word of God, otherwise we will lose all that we think we have. The entire lesson was about “hearing” and “doing” what God tells us to do.

      Let us not forget Mathew 15:4 , Mary is the Mother of Jesus after all. Jesus didn’t come to remove the old Law but to fulfil it (Mathew 5:17). Naturally he would honour his Mother.

      If you look at Genesis 3:15 you will see that God had already told us that the Woman and Her seed would crush Satan, and bring about the salvation of the human race. Thereby undoing the damage caused in the garden on that fateful day. Providing a way for us to be with God.

      I would also direct you to John 19:26 , here Jesus indicates that Mary has been elevated to the status of Mother over all. We Catholics believe her to be the new Eve, the new Mother of all living. (Genesis 3:20)

      Mary is definitely the new Arch of the new covenant. Mary carried Jesus Christ within her for nine months. No other living human being has had such an intimate personal relationship with God almighty.

      In Luke 1:28 the Angel Gabriel said “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women”

      Mary, who the Angel Gabriel has already told us is full of Grace and blessed among women, is in heaven with her son. Of this there should be no doubt.

      And so I ask you. When someone in our lives is in danger or ill or drifting away from God. What do we naturally do? We pray for them. We do this because God hears our prayers, even when they are on behalf of someone else. In this same vain Mary is there, in heaven, and Jesus honours her because she is his Mother. His own Law guarantees to us the honour that is bestowed on his Mother (exodus 20:12). If our prayers on behalf of another are heard, then what makes anyone think that the requests of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and all living, blessed among women, and full of grace, would not be heard?

  2. Great article Chris. A scripture in Luke 11:27-28 helped me refocus my priority of worship. In context, Jesus is teaching great truths about prayer, answer to prayer, signs from heaven and unclean spirits. When in the middle of his teaching a woman interrupts him to adore his mother for giving him birth. It was actually a very kind gesture considering all the times the Pharisees had interrupted him with insults and disbelief. But…

    “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

    From Jesus own teaching, He warns us ‘rather’ to hear the Word of God and obey it…even over the blessing of His mother. It would have been a perfect time for him to set us straight on the Marian doctrine, but He chose to set us straight on God and His Word. Powerful truth can be overlooked when we interrupt Jesus’ words with our own ideas. Therefore, let us keep our eyes on Jesus…the author and perfecter of our Faith 🙂

    1. You are taking this phrase out of context
      Luke 11:27 is the start of a larger teaching, the teaching stretches down to Luke 11:36. The lecture is about the wickedness of the generation, and the looming judgement of those that are wicked. It was a stern warning, if you are wicked, heaping blessings upon Mary won’t help you.
      Jesus was definitely not trying to say that his Mother is not blessed. We know full well that she is very blessed.

      In Luke 1:28 the Angel Gabriel said “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women”
      In Luke 1:42 Elizabeth tells Mary “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”

  3. Out of respect for the position of the Pope, I would appreciate if you did not refer to the Pope as “Pope Ratzinger.” In the same way that I wouldn’t say, “Queen Liz” for Queen Elizabeth.

    This correction is not one of agreement or disagreement over theological issues, it is merely an issue of calling people by their rightful name. I will say it is commonplace to cite “Ratzinger’s” works that were written before he was elected Pope, but since his election, it is custom to refer to him as “Pope Benedict XVI” or even simply “Benedict XVI”

    Thank you for your understanding!

  4. Thanks Joseph, Leonardo, the writer of this post, is an Italian scholar working in Rome. My understanding is that when referring to a volume written by Joseph Ratzinger before he was made Pope it is commonplace to refer to it by his original name. When identifying a volume he has written after entering the Petrine office you would of course cite Pope Benedict XVI. If Catholic readers are familiar with this practice, please weigh in. It’s not meant as disrespectful, like Queen Liz (or like my Catholic priest friend who once referred to the Pope as “Papa-ratzi.” He can say that as Catholic clergy, but I wouldn’t dare).

Comments are closed.