Papal Infallibility and the Assumption: What difference does the location of Mary’s body make?

by | Aug 15, 2021 | Liturgy, Prayers, Spirituality

What better way to celebrate the Assumption than with a bit of Catholic Trivia. 

Q. How many times has a pope used Papal Infallibility, or the dogma that a pope can speak without error on specific matters of faith and morals, to promulgate (i.e. roll out) a revealed truth of religion which Catholics are required to believe?

A. For all of the contentious ink spilled over the idea of Papal Infallibility since it was proclaimed by the First Vatican Council in 1870, Papal Infallibility has been invoked only once by a pope in defining a dogma ex cathedra that all Catholics must believe.

This first and only usage in the history of the church occurred in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared that all Catholics (including us, today) must hold “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This is the fourth of the Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. The other three Marian dogmas are: 

    1. That Mary is the Mother of God (defined at the council of Ephesus in AD 431)
    2. That Mary was a virgin prior to, during, and after the birth of Jesus (defined at the first Lateran council in 649)
    3. That Mary, from moment of her conception was preserved from original sin (defined ex cathedra by Pope Pius IX in 1854) 

So, we must believe that Mary’s body is in heaven as Catholics. Inoffensive enough, I guess, but also seemingly random. What difference does the location of Mary’s body make? Why should it matter to us? 

Simply stated: the Assumption matters because it reminds us, with almost embarrassing boldness, of the shocking materiality of Catholic belief in the afterlife—a facet of our faith that we’d often rather forget. Most of us learn something like this in catechism: At the end of our lives we will all be judged by God. Depending on the outcome, we will then go to heaven (or heaven on the slow track a la purgatory) or hell, and that’s that. Forever. 

This version of our eternal fate is true, but it is glaringly incomplete. Every single Sunday, we Catholics publicly profess that we expect “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I’ll bet that most of us don’t spend too much time thinking about what this means. 

For Christians, the separation of the soul from the body is unnatural. God created us as embodied souls, and Christ redeemed our matter and souls by his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. God took flesh, God exalted that flesh and he revealed his glorious plan for creation: to share this glory with him. 

Heaven and Hell are real, but they aren’t the end of the story. On the last day, we will all rise just as Jesus did. We will have resurrected bodies: mysterious, powerful, yet material and real like his, and our souls will be reunited with them forever. Where Christ has led, we too will follow, if we remain faithful to our baptismal call to build his kingdom in anticipation of his return. 

Mary, the mother of God, is the first and the best Christian that has ever been or will ever be. Her entire life is an example for us. She leads the way to Christ. Mary was just as human as we are; she needed a savior just like we do. She struggled to understand God’s plan through joys and sorrows just like we do. At the end of her life, Mary died like Jesus (and like each and every one of us will). Death though, for her (and for us!), did not have the final word. She was resurrected, and exalted, and she reigns with Christ in the kingdom of God which is bursting forth at the seams all around us. 

Thus, the Assumption, just like every Marian Dogma, is really a statement about who Jesus is and who we are as his followers. The Assumption tells us that Jesus is true to his word, and that he will do for all of us exactly as he promised. Pius XII himself, in the document which promulgated the dogma of the Assumption wrote, “It is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.” 

The Assumption bids us all celebrate a wonderful truth: an empty tomb awaits each one of us beyond our individual calvaries. The Assumption boldly promises that every lowly person who follows Christ as Mary did will be exalted. The Assumption is the realization of that song of joy which Mary sang when she visited her cousin Elizabeth: 

The almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name…He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has scattered the proud in their conceit and has lifted up the lowly…for he has remembered his promise of mercy, which he made to our parents, Abraham and his children forever. 


Christopher Smith, SJ   /   All posts by Christopher