Christopher Howse

A reasonable assumption

You'd have to be mad to believe in a dodgy dogma invented in 1950. Christopher Howse takes a rationally long view of it

Anglicans in the United States believe it is a good idea for bishops to express their homosexual preferences genitally with long-stay companions. Some people will believe anything. Others find it hard to believe in the event commemorated each 15 August, the Assumption into Heaven of the Virgin Mary. I can’t myself see it is any harder to believe than the substantial presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. But I think I know the reason people find the Assumption a credal crux.

It is because they suppose the dogma was invented on 1 November 1950, when Good Pope Pius XII declared that ‘the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory’. To make matters apparently worse, this was the sole addition to the creed made under the terms of papal infallibility declared in 1870. You only have to say ‘infallible’ and it sets people scratching their organs of doubt. But deny this dogma and you fry. In kindly Pope Pius’s words, you will ‘incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul’. Blimey! The wrath of Almighty God I am used to, but those Blessed Apostles sound heavy.

In fact, the doctrine of the Assumption was already ancient when it was represented with great beauty by El Greco and suchlike Old Masters. It was long held among Catholics to be ‘impious and blasphemous’ to deny the Virgin’s Assumption.

If she’s not in Heaven, where’s the body? Try the Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary in the Kedron valley, down a flight of steps where a rock-hewn chamber dating from the 5th century houses the ‘glorious tomb of the Mother of God’, a house-shaped structure eight feet high. According to St Gregory of Tours, St Sophronius the Patriarch of Jerusalem and our own St Bede, it was a popular pilgrimage destination.

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