14 August 2009

Pius XII and the Assumption.

The simplistic notion that the Definition of 1950 regarding the Assumption of our Lady somehow constituted the imposition of a 'new' dogma is quite the opposite of the truth. Put crudely, rather than being Doctrinal Augmentationism, that Definition constituted Doctrinal Reductionism.

The first millennium texts common to Rome and Canterbury express a belief common also to the East: that Mary 'underwent temporal death'; that nevertheless she 'could not be held down by the bonds of death' and that the precise reason why God 'translated her from this age' was that 'she might faithfully intercede for our sins'. This is the Ancient Common Tradition, found in the Altar Missal of the Anglo-Saxon Archbishops of Canterbury (the 'Leofric Missal'), the faith of S Odo, S Dunstan, S Aelfheah, S Aethelnoth, S Eadsige and very probably of so many other archbishops of Canterbury stretching beyond Plegmund to S Augustine. She died and was resurrected. Authoritative, surely?

Yet this is not what Pius XII defined. His 1950 definition, as the ARCIC document on Mary accurately reminds us, does not 'use about her the language of death and resurrection, but celebrates the action of God in her.' In other words, Pius XII took a machete and slashed ruthlessly at the Common Ancient Tradition about our Lady's end, not simply by ignoring the apocryphal stories about how the Apostles gathered and what they found in the tomb and how S Thomas arrived late and all the rest of it; but also by pruning away even the bare structural bones of what Christians Eastern and Western had thought they knew: that she died and was resurrected.

The 1950 decree was not the imposition of some new dogma but the elimination of 99% of what the Common Ancient Tradition had for centuries asserted. Those whose instinctive disposition is to avoid speculation about our Lady's End ought to applaud Pius XII and the radical austerity, the innovative agnosticism, of his definition. He went almost all the way to meet them.


Rubricarius said...

Well quite.

I was discussing the Byzantine praxis with a friend only recently who pointed out (the details of which I cannot remember exactly) how the visit to the empty tomb on the third day after the Virgin's Dormition.

I pointed out that the traditional Roman liturgy had a similar, albetit less explicit, commemoration with the story of the visit to the empty tomb on the 18th of August. My friend ventured "I bet old Pacelli got rid of that". I had to confirm that indeed this was the case and the splendid old Octave replaced by a banal set of text with even the new octave giving up the ghost within half a decade.

Christian said...

Are you all sure about this? My reading of the text indicates that Pius XII does not exclude these stories, he merely asserts that the basic historical fact of the Assumption happened. He does not condemn the other appendages to the story.

Rubricarius said...


Yes, the Mattins lessons were changed with the new texts so the set of lessons from St. John Damascene (Orat 2 de Dormit. Deipare sub finem) Ex antiqua accepimus traitione... got the proverbial chop in the new texts of the Office issued 27th April 1951.

Joshua said...

I think that perhaps poor Pius may be excused - he simply wished to assert the Assumption, and not define even the related death.

The Dominican Rite, even after 1950, maintained the collect Veneranda, which explicitly mentions Holy Mary's death.

Irritatingly, while their traditional Liturgy may be celebrated, in their modern rite Proper they were denied, by Rome, the continued use of Veneranda! Dominicans I know get very grumpy about this.

As mentioned, one unfortunate side-effect of the Definition was that it is often portrayed as ex nihilo, and as implicitly denying the death of the Virgin, according to what Newman noted would happen: all other Papal pronouncements get so devalued that only the itty-bitty part that's explicitly infallible is treated as having any hold on believers.

Michael McDonough said...

I agree with Christian and Joshua on the definition -- it does not exclude the dormition, and even mentions those traditions. "Infallibiilty" is not a call to forget everything besides those "itty-bitty" parts of the definition. OTOH, that does appear to be a certain malign spirit of the age in our Western Church: exclude all but the essentials.

And good for those "grumpy" Dominicans!

Rubricarius said...

Joshua & Michael

But so why change the texts of the liturgical books? The fourth day within the Octave had the wonderful set about visiting the then empty tomb - why replace those with the writings of Pius XII?

It seems to be the same principle of arguing that the Holy Saturday liturgy was at the wrong time and instead of just moving it, re-casting the rite and texts.

Terra said...

I'm with Joshua, Christian and Michael. Pius XII sensibly limited the use of the infallible declaration to the minimum necessary; that certainly doesn't exclude the ordinary magisterium that doesn't contradict that definition.

It is common practice to include parts of the relevant papal decision in the Matins readings where relevant, so I don't think one should read too much into the change of readings.

Cristian_Ciopron said...

Not very accurate.
I strive to maintain some doctrinal discipline on this blog, I have to bring the document:--
'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'