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