The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption

A Catholic Answers Tract

The Marian doctrines are, for fundamentalists, among the most annoying of the doctrines most people identify as peculiarly Catholic. Fundamentalists disapprove of any talk about Mary as the Mother of God, as the Mediatrix, as the Mother of the Church. In this tract we'll examine briefly two Marian doctrines that fundamentalist writers frequently complain about, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

Catholic exegetes, in discussing the Immaculate Conception, first look at the Annunciation. Gabriel greeted Mary by saying, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek kecharitomene. This word actually represents the proper name of the person being addressed by the angel, and it must on that account express a characteristic quality of Mary. What's more, the traditional translation, "full of grace," is more accurate than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." True, Mary was a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that.

The newer translations leave out something the Greek conveys, something the older English versions convey, which is that this grace (and the core of the word kecharitomene is charis, after all) is at once permanent and of a singular kind. The Greek indicates a perfection of grace. A perfection must be perfect not only intensively, but extensively. The grace Mary enjoyed must not only have been as "full" or strong or complete as possible at any given time, but it must have extended over the whole of her life, from conception.

More Than Highly Favored

That is, she must have been in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence to have been called "full of grace." If she was merely "highly favored," in the normal connotation of those words, her status would have been indistinguishable from that of some other women in the Bible, such as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, or Sarah, the wife of Abraham, or Anna, the mother of Samuel--all of whom, by the way, were long childless and were "highly favored" because God acceded to their pleas to bear children.

(By the way, one should keep in mind what the Immaculate Conception is not. Some non-Catholics think the term refers to Christ's conception in Mary's womb without the intervention of a human father; the proper name for that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary herself was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit," in the way Jesus was, but it does not. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived in the womb of her mother without the stain of Original Sin. The essence of Original Sin consists in the lack of sanctifying grace. Mary was preserved from this defect; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace.)

Fundamentalists' chief reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary's consequent sinlessness--which is what her life-long state of sanctifying grace implies--is that Mary was but a creature, and we are told that "All have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Besides, they say, Mary said her "spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47), and only a sinner needs a Savior. Since Mary was a sinner, she couldn't have been immaculately conceived.

Take the second citation first. The Church has a simple and sensible answer to this difficulty. It is this: Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, by her nature she was subject to the necessity of contracting Original Sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of Original Sin and certain of its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way, by anticipation. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception thus does not contradict Luke 1:47.

Have All Sinned?

But what about Rom. 3:23, "All have sinned"? Fundamentalists, as a rule, think it means more than that everyone is subject to Original Sin. They think it means everyone commits actual sins. They conclude it means Mary must have sinned during her life, and that certainly would speak against an Immaculate Conception.

But is the fundamentalists' reasoning solid? Not really. Think about a child below the age of reason. By definition he can't sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend to sin. If the child dies before ever committing an actual sin, because he isn't mature enough to know what he is doing, what act of his brings him under their interpretation of Rom. 3:23? None, of course.

Paul's comment to the Christians in Rome thus would seem to have one of two meanings. Despite the phrasing, it might be that it refers not to absolutely everyone, but just to the mass of mankind (which means young children and other special cases, like Mary, would be excluded without having to be singled out). If not that, then it would mean that everyone, without exception, is subject to Original Sin [i.e., all of Adam's descendents are subject to the results of his fall, unless they are redeemed by Christ], which is true for a young child, for the unborn, even for Mary--but she, though otherwise she would have been subject to it, was preserved from its stain by her Son's redemptive work.

It took a positive act of God to keep her from coming under its effects the way we have. We had the stain of Original Sin removed through baptism, which brings sanctifying grace to the soul (thus making the soul spiritually alive and capable of enjoying heaven) and makes the recipient a member of the Church. We might say that Mary received a very special kind of "baptism" at her conception, though, because she never contracted Original Sin, she enjoyed certain privileges we never can, such as entire avoidance of sin.

A Question of Lowliness

On occasion one will hear that the Immaculate Conception can't be squared with Mary's own description of herself: "he has looked graciously on the lowliness of his handmaid" (Luke 1:48). How could she be lowly if she were, as Catholics say, the highest creature, what the poet Wordsworth called "our tainted nature's solitary boast"? If she understood herself to be lowly, doesn't that mean she understood herself to have sinned?

The key is that sin is not the only motive for lowliness. Compared to God, any creature, no matter how perfect, is lowly, Mary included. Jesus, referring to his human nature, said, "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart" (Matt. 11:29). Certainly he was without sin, and if he could describe himself as lowly, there can be no argument against Mary describing herself the same way.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was officially defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. When fundamentalists claim that the doctrine was "invented" at this time, they misunderstand both the history of dogmas and what prompts the Church to issue, from time to time, definitive pronouncements regarding faith or morals. They are under the impression that no dogma is believed until the Pope or an ecumenical council issues a formal statement about it.

Actually, dogmas are defined formally only when there is a controversy that needs to be cleared up or when the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) thinks the faithful can be helped by particular emphasis being drawn to some already- existing belief. The definition of the Immaculate Conception was prompted by the latter motive; it did not come about because there were widespread doubts about the doctrine. Pius IX, who was highly devoted to the Virgin, hoped the definition would inspire others in their devotion to her.

As they reject the Immaculate Conception and Mary's perpetual virginity, so fundamentalists reject the dogma of the Assumption, but they don't worry about it much. What little thought they give to it concerns why Catholics think Mary didn't die. That isn't the Catholic position, of course, but fundamentalists think it is, and they are concerned about a privilege which finds no warrant in Scripture.

They note that Enoch "walked with God, and he was seen no more because God took him" (Gen. 5:24). He was translated so as not to see death (Heb. 11:5). And then there was Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (4 Kings 2:1-13). But the Bible says nothing about what happened to Mary, and doesn't it seem that there would be some mention of her never dying? After all, it would have been truly "remark-able."

They Misunderstand

There is a certain sense in their argument, and if the doctrine of the Assumption were what they think it is, the argument would carry some weight. But it is beside the point because Catholic commentators, not to mention the popes, have agreed that Mary died; that belief has long been expressed through the liturgy. (The Church has never formally defined whether she died or not, and the integrity of the doctrine of the Assumption would not impaired if she did not die, but the almost universal consensus is that she did in fact die.)

The Assumption is therefore simpler than fundamentalists fear, though still not acceptable to them. Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus (1950), defined that Mary, "after the completion of her earthly life"--note the silence regarding her death--"was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven." In short, her body wasn't allowed to corrupt, it was not allowed to remain in a tomb.

True, no express scriptural proofs for the doctrine are available. But the possibility of a bodily assumption before the Second Coming is not excluded by 1 Cor. 15:23, and it is even suggested by Matt. 27:52-53: "and the graves were opened, and many bodies arose out of them, bodies of holy men gone to their rest: who, after his rising again, left their graves and went into the holy city, where they were seen by many."

And there is what might be called the negative historical proof. As every fundamentalist knows, from the first Catholics gave homage to saints, including many about whom we now know nothing. Cities vied for the title of the last resting place of the most famous saints. Rome, for example, claims the tombs of Peter and Paul, Peter's tomb being under the high altar of the Basilica that bears his name. Other cities claim the mortal remains of other saints, both famous and little-known.

We know that the bones of some saints were distributed to several cities, so more than one, for example, are able to claim the "head" of this or that saint, even if the "head" is only a small portion of the skull. With a few exceptions (such as Peter, who was only claimed by Rome, never, for example, by Antioch, where he worked before moving on to Rome), the more famous or important the saint, the more cities wanted his relics.

No Remains

We know that after the Crucifixion Mary was cared for by the apostle John (John 19:26- 27). Early Christian writings say John went to live at Ephesus and that Mary accompanied him. There is some dispute about where she ended her life; perhaps there, perhaps back at Jerusalem. Neither those cities nor any other claimed her remains, though there are claims about possessing her (temporary) tomb. And why did no city claim the bones of Mary? Apparently because there weren't any bones to claim and people knew it.

Remember, in the early Christian centuries relics of saints were jealously guarded, highly prized. The bones of those martyred in the Colosseum, for instance, were quickly gathered up and preserved; there are many accounts of this in the biographies of those who gave their lives for the faith. Yet here was Mary, certainly the most privileged of all the saints, certainly the most saintly, but we have no record of her bodily remains being venerated anywhere.

Most arguments in favor of the Assumption, as developed over the centuries by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, concern not so much scriptural references (there are few that speak even indirectly to the matter), but rather the fittingness of the privilege. The speculative grounds considered include Mary's freedom from sin, her Motherhood of God, her perpetual virginity, and--the key--her participation in the salvific work of Christ. It seems most fitting that she should attain the full fruit of the Redemption, which is the glorification of the soul and body.

But there is more than just fittingness. Pius XII said the Assumption is really a consequence of the Immaculate Conception. "These two singular privileges bestowed upon the Mother of God stand out in most splendid light at the beginning and the end of her earthly journey. For the greatest possible glorification of her virgin body is the complement, at once appropriate and marvelous, of the absolute innocence of her soul, which was free from all stain. ... [S]he shared in [Christ's] glorious triumph over sin and its sad consequences."

Her Cooperation

"But," ask fundamentalists, "if Mary was immaculately conceived, and if death was a consequence of Original Sin, why did she die?" Although she was wholly innocent and never committed a sin, she died in order to be in union with Jesus. Keep in mind that he did not have to die to effect our redemption; he could have just willed it, and that would have been sufficient. But he chose to die.

Mary identified herself with his work, her whole life being a cooperation with God's plan of salvation, certainly from her saying "Let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38), but really from the very start of her life. She accepted death as Jesus accepted death, and she suffered (Luke 2:35) in union with his suffering. Just as she shared in his work, she shared in his glorification. She shared in his Resurrection by having her glorified body taken into heaven, the way the glorified bodies of all the saved will be taken into heaven on the last day.

(It is also necessary to keep in mind what the Assumption is not. Some people think Catholics believe Mary "ascended" into heaven. That's not correct. Christ, by his own power, ascended into heaven. Mary was assumed or taken up into heaven by God. She didn't do it under her own power.)

Still, fundamentalists ask, where is the proof from Scripture? Strictly, there is none. It was the Catholic Church that was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly. The mere fact that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Assumption as something definitely true is a guarantee that it is true.

Here, of course, we get into an entirely separate matter, the question of sola scriptura. There is no room in this tract to consider that idea. Let it just be said that if the position of the Catholic Church is true, then the notion of sola scriptura is false. There is then no problem with the Church officially defining a doctrine which, though not in contradiction to Scripture, cannot be found on its face. (After all, the Bible says nothing against the Assumption; silence is not the same as rejection, though, to be sure, silence is not the same as affirmation either. Silence is just--silence.)


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