The Apostolic Constitution, wherein the dogmatic definition is contained, was principally drafted by theologian Michel-Louis Guerard des Lauriers, who in 1981 would receive episcopal consecration from Archbishop Peter Thuc as a Traditionalist Bishop. Des Lauriers would also formulate the sedeprivationist theory to explain the state of the Vacancy after the death of Pope Pius XII. When the eminent theologian presented the final draft to His Holiness for approval, the pope told him to change one part of the definition, which he did dutifully. The pope then approved it as above. The original, uncorrected version is below:
For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having died, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. (Emphasis mine).
The difference should be obvious. After having received the final draft, Pope Pius was conferring with several prominent theologians, and some of them urged him to remove the death of the Blessed Mother from the definition. After prayerful consideration, the pope agreed, and had theologian des Lauriers make the change from Mary "having died," to "having completed the course of her earthly life." The significance of the change cannot be understated. There are theologians who believe (like my spiritual father, Fr. Gommar DePauw, JCD) that the Blessed Virgin Mary never experienced death. Rather, when her mission on earth was over, God had her Assumed into Heaven by angels, and she was given a glorified body.
The majority of theologians held Mary had indeed died, but prior to the first moment of bodily corruption setting in, she was resurrected with a glorified body and Assumed, by the Almighty Power of God, into Heaven. By removing "having died" from the text of the definition, Pope Pius XII made clear that he was not settling the theological controversy. A Traditionalist Catholic is therefore free to hold either opinion. In this post, I will set forth the arguments of both sides. I have taken the opinions of some of the greatest approved theologians' Mariology, including Scheeben, Carol, Pohle, Mare, Everett and Neubert in the composition of this post. I have included the notes I took from Fr. DePauw, an approved canonist pre-Vatican II. This post is my compilation of their writings.
I (like Fr. DePauw) hold the minority view that Mary never died. Of course, you are free to disagree, and I submit all I write to the judgement of Holy Mother Church should the papacy be restored; humbly accepting Her decisions.
The Death of Mary Thesis
Without a doubt, the thesis that Mary died like all the other children of Adam, is the majority opinion among the theologians and carries much theological weight. Prior to the dogma of the Assumption, a great many theologians classified the death of Mary as "proximately definable." The theological arguments for this thesis can be grouped under five (5) headings: (a) the Magisterium; (b) the liturgy; (c) the Holy Bible; (d) Sacred Tradition; and (e) theological reasoning. Each will be examined.
There are no papal decrees that pronounce for or against the death of Mary. However, Pope Clement V (d. 1314), wrote in a sermon: "It must be held firmly she (Mary) really and truly rose again." The pope therefore presupposes death in order for her to rise again. In a 1933 address, Pope Pius XI stated that the grace Our Lady received at the time of Her Immaculate Conception was "...a grace of Redemption which did not confer on her a true and proper immortality."
It is well known that the liturgy, which reflects the mind of the Magisterium in doctrinal matters, contains repeated allusions to the specific manner in which Our Lady departed this life. Two are of special significance: the famous Collect Veneranda was composed on the initiative of Pope Sergius I (d. 701), and to be recited at the beginning of a procession held in connection with the Feast of the Dormition ("falling asleep") of Mary reads, Veneranda nobis, Domine, huius diei festivitas opem conferat salutarem, in qua sancta Dei Genetrix mortem subiit temporalem, nec tamen mortis nexibus deprimi potuit, quae Filium tuum Dominum nostrum de se genuit incarnatum: Qui tecum vivit et regnat... which translates as May this hallowed feast shower us with saving grace, O Lord; since today the mother of God underwent the death of the body yet could not be held in death-bonds, as having brought forth Your incarnate Son, Our Lord; Who lives and reigns...(Emphasis mine).
Likewise, the prayer Subveniat, was part of the Mass (Collect) for the Feast of the Assumption until 1950, reads as follows:
Subveniat, Domine, plebi tuae Dei Genitricis oratio: quam etsi pro conditione carnis migrasse cognoscimus, in caelesti gloria apud te pro nobis intercedere sentiamus.
Translation: May the prayer of the Mother of God assist Thy people, O Lord: although we know that she passed according to the condition of the flesh, may we nevertheless feel her interceding for us in heavenly glory. (Emphasis mine).
The liturgy cannot give error or evil, so Mary died.
The Holy Bible
The Bible makes no explicit mention of Mary's final fate on this Earth. Genesis 3:15 may be said to contain a veiled reference to her death: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. The solemn words which God addressed to the serpent in the Garden of Eden foretold Our Lady's intimate share in the redemptive mission of her Son. Since this mission, in the present economy, calls for the death of the Redeemer as a means of destroying the power of Satan, we might conclude that the Redeemer's partner should likewise die in order to achieve a greater conformity with Him in His triumph.
Many Church Fathers taught the death of Mary, such as Origen (when Catholic), St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine, among others.
All theologians who hold this thesis agree that Mary's death was not due to her having contracted Original Sin. Such is incompatible with the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and even prior to the 1854 definition, it was condemned in 1567 by Pope St. Pius V: No one except Christ is free from Original Sin; hence, the Blessed Virgin died because of sin contracted from Adam, and all of her afflictions in this life as well as those of other just persons were the punishments for actual sin, or for Original Sin. CONDEMNED PROPOSITION #73 of the Errors of Michael du Bay.
However, while true that Mary was immune from Original Sin, this was due to a special privilege which did not carry with it the preternatural gifts conferred on Adam before his sin, such as impassibility and immortality. Our Lady lacked immortality not because she "lost" it in Adam, but rather because God decreed she would have a human body (which is intrinsically mortal, regardless of sin) so that she might share the lot of her Son, the Redeemer. Since Our Lady was Co-Redemptrix, she was united to the Redeemer by an indissoluble bond. Therefore, it seems natural that she, too, should offer the supreme sacrifice of her life to the same end and to obtain the same effects, although on a different plane.
The Immortality of Mary Thesis
In the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII purposely rejected defining the death of Mary, even when such was in the final draft given him. Had the previous opinions of Pope Clement V and Pope Pius XI been definitive teaching, he would not have changed the definition so as to remove defining Our Lady's purported death. Two further points:
- Pope Pius XII not only did not define Mary's death, but whenever he mentions it in the Apostolic Constitution, he is referring to someone else's views, not his own
- In the Apostolic Constitution, the pope stresses the fact that, since Mary was conceived without Original Sin, she was not subject to the law of corruption
The Feast was of the Dormition (i.e., "falling asleep") of the Blessed Virgin Mary; "sleep" not necessarily meaning "death." The Dormition of Mary has been likened by several theologians to the sleep of Adam in the Garden of Eden when God formed Eve from one of his ribs. This, obviously, was not a true death. More than a few theologians teach that a procession is not truly a liturgical function, so the Veneranda holds no weight; it was an opinion. The prayer Subveniat has the phrase "passed according to the condition of the flesh," not "death," because all flesh must "pass out" of this world, yet not necessarily by death.
In the new Mass of the Assumption, issued simultaneously with the Apostolic Constitution (11/1/1950), Pope Pius XII substitutes a new Subveniat for the old one. This prayer specifically makes no mention of Mary's death. Therefore, it shows the mind of the Pontiff that the old prayer was not speaking about physical death. Moreover, this change in wording was purposely introduced by the pope.
The Holy Bible
It is clear from Sacred Scripture that, in the present order of things, death is the penal consequence of Original Sin personally contracted by each human being. (Genesis 2:17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die; Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned). Since Our Lady was free from the stain of Original Sin, so too she should be free from death. Proponents of the Death of Mary Thesis will agree, yet they state that doesn't prevent God from permitting Mary's death from an altogether different reason not connected to Original Sin.
While their assertion is true, the burden of proof is on those theologians to prove what the reason is and why it is greater than preserving Our Lady from death. St. Paul writes:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality (1 Cor 15:51-53). It is an opinion of many theologians that those living at the time of the Second Coming of Christ shall not die. (See theologian Sagues, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IVB, , pgs. 290-293). The Nicene Creed states that Christ shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead. If this can be held tenable for sinners, then shouldn't it be held certain for She who is Immaculate?
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 circa 377: "Whether she died or was buried we know not."
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. 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." St. Bonaventure was not a heretic because the Immaculate Conception was a subject open to theological debate at that time in history.
The converse of what St. Bonaventure wrote must therefore be true, "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 did not die for she was not subject to original sin." The erroneous idea that Mary had contracted Original Sin was also the cause of some of the Fathers to declare she died. St. Augustine wrote that Our Lady died "on account of Adam's sin." He was obviously wrong.
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. Hence, where there is no sin there can be no obligatory death of the body in a child of Adam. Therefore, it would appear that if the death of Mary is to be defended, there must be another reason, one wherein the acceptance of death by Mary would be a voluntary act. Theologians see this in Mary's role of Co-Redemptrix of the human race as stated in the Thesis of Mary's death above.
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 Co-Redeem 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 (in the primary act) and, consequently, the Co-Redemption. This, too, goes counter to the traditionally accepted belief that Mary Co-Redeemed us by a spiritual compassion, suffering in her soul the agony Christ suffered for us in His Body. Hence, it is not necessary that Mary needs to die for her to be called Co-Redemptrix.
As theologian Mare writes, “Death with all it signifies for a simple human creature could not possibly avoid involving some character of disgrace and forfeiture, incompatible with her Immaculate Conception and her Divine Maternity.”
Whether or not Mary died prior to her Assumption is an open theological question. Along with Fr. DePauw, I believe she did not. Christ's Resurrection and Mary's Assumption remind us that death never has the final say. During this time of Lent meditate on death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Think often on the Passion of Christ and the Sorrows of Mary. If we are faithful in serving them, we too, can hope for an eternity of happiness when we leave this "valley of tears."