Don’t they celebrate the Dormition instead of the Assumption in the East? And doesn’t “dormition” just mean sleeping? So Mary didn’t die! Right?
Michael Lofton • 8/17/2022
This past Monday, Latin-Rite Catholics and some of the Eastern Catholic Churches celebrated the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. In the West, the feast is called the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast came to the West from the East in the seventh century but had already been celebrated in the East for over a century under the name of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. In the Eastern tradition, the emphasis of the feast is on her dormition, or falling asleep, which is a euphemism for her death. This was the original focus of the feast until it came to the West, where the emphasis shifted to the Virgin’s assumption into heaven.
At this point, some may be confused: how can we say the Virgin Mary died if she did not have original sin? This is certainly understandable given that human death was introduced into the world through Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12). However, the Virgin Mary’s exemption from original sin did not necessarily exempt her from all the effects of Adam’s sin. She was always in a state of sanctity, innocence, and justice, and she never experienced disordered passions (concupiscence), but she was not exempt from all temporal penalties.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Mary “was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam—from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death.” This was written after Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate conception in 1854, so the encyclopedia certainly did not see any conflict between the claims that Mary was free from original sin and yet capable of dying. Others disagree with this view and argue the Virgin Mary died simply because she chose to, as a way to imitate her son.
In other words, the question of why she died is debatable, but is the question that she died debatable?
Some argue that the Virgin Mary’s death is still open for debate. For instance, some claim that Pope Pius XII did not say whether Mary died when he defined the dogma of the Assumption in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus. The pope’s definition says:
We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: 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.
Note that the pope refers to the end of her earthly life, but this could be interpreted in ways that would not require death. For instance, we could speak of the end of the prophet Elijah’s earthy life, even though according to Scripture he didn’t die (2 Kings 2:11).
Thus, it is technically true that the Church has not defined in its extraordinary Magisterium whether the Virgin Mary died. However, does that mean the case is still open?
In the same apostolic constitution, Pius XII says the liturgy does not give rise to what we believe, but rather reflects what we already believe. Since the original intention of the Feast of the Assumption was the Virgin’s dormition, and her dormition is celebrated in a Catholic rite, it would follow that the Church already believes she died before her assumption. Furthermore, he says the fathers of the church preached about the dormition of the Virgin because it was something already accepted by Christ’s faithful. He then speaks frankly about the Virgin Mary having died, saying:
They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten son, Jesus Christ—truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly.
In other words, the Virgin Mary did die, but her body did not undergo corruption in the grave.
So it is true that the pope did not solemnly define in his extraordinary magisterium whether the Virgin Mary died, but he also says Christ’s faithful had already accepted that she died, which is why the Fathers of the Church preached about it on the feast of the dormition.
Some may insist that this part of the apostolic constitution is not part of the definition, so the case is still open for debate. I will concede that it’s is not part of the definition, but it is part of the authentic Magisterium, which has a high degree of authority, especially since it is in an apostolic constitution. This means, at the very least, the claim the Virgin Mary died requires religious submission of intellect and will.
Moreover, the bigger problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church, which is the constant preaching of the bishops throughout the world. Consider the case of the deity of Christ for a moment. Prior to the definition of the First Council of Nicaea, could someone have denied that Jesus was one in nature with the Father? According to the argument above, yes, because that dogma had not yet been solemnly defined by the extraordinary Magisterium of the church. However, this would be mistaken, because it too would not take into account the ordinary and universal Magisterium on the matter.
Some might offer further pushback and ask whether the bishops throughout the world have actually preached the truthfulness of the claim that the Virgin Mary died. In response, I would note that the liturgy is one of the sources that testifies to Sacred Tradition, which would also tell us what the bishops consistently teach in their ordinary and universal Magisterium, since the ordinary and universal Magisterium will always maintain Sacred Tradition. In other words, one of the ways to identify the ordinary and universal Magisterium is through the liturgy, which testifies to the dormition of the Virgin Mary. For this reason, anyone who would deny that the Virgin Mary died before the assumption would have to explain how error has seemingly crept into our liturgy, into the authentic Magisterium, and into the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium.