Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Assumption Of Mary And Marian Relics

Pope Pius XII, in his decree Munificentissimus Deus, refers to the Assumption of Mary as "a matter of such great moment and of such importance". He says to people who oppose the doctrine, "let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith". The Pope refers to the assumption as "this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times".

But many modern Catholic apologists will act as if the doctrine isn't so important. They'll also say that the doctrine isn't based on scripture in the sense in which we would normally derive any other concept from any other document. Rather, it's Biblical only in some typological sense or in the sense of being taught by a church whose authority is Biblical, for example. They'll appeal to church authority to support the doctrine, but when you ask them for evidence of that alleged church authority, they'll once again appeal to speculation, allegories, typology, and the like. In other words, they have no defense for the doctrine or for the Roman Catholic system of authority that teaches it.

When there's an attempt to make the assumption of Mary seem historical, however, one of the primary arguments put forward is the claim that none of the early Christians professed to have any bones of Mary or comparable relics from her body. (Some people did claim to have hair strands, breast milk, or other relics that wouldn't necessarily be evidence against an assumption.) Pope Pius XII put it this way in the decree mentioned above:

"Finally, since the Church has never looked for the bodily relics of the Blessed Virgin nor proposed them for the veneration of the people, we have a proof on the order of a sensible experience."

As I explain in a post elsewhere, that argument for an assumption of Mary is far outweighed by the evidence we have against the concept. In the post I just referred to, I explain how the whereabouts of a person's body could be unknown without our thereby being justified in concluding that an assumption has occurred. Somebody like Epiphanius could write about how he didn't know where Mary's body was, yet say at the same time that nobody knows how her life ended.

Catholics often paint a picture in which the early Christians are referring to the bodily remains of every or almost every Biblical figure, with Mary being the only exception or one of a small number. The truth is, though, that the earliest Christians don't say much about the bodily remains of Biblical figures in general. It wasn't unique to Mary. Even as late as the fifth century, we find John Chrysostom commenting:

"Tell me, are not the bones of Moses himself laid in a strange land? And those of Aaron, of Daniel, of Jeremiah? And as to those of the Apostles we do not know where those of most of them are laid. For of Peter indeed, and Paul, and John, and Thomas, the sepulchers are well known; but those of the rest, being so many, have nowhere become known. Let us not therefore lament at all about this, nor be so little-minded. For where-ever we may be buried, 'the earth is the Lord's and all that therein is.' (Ps. xxiv. 1.)" (Homilies on Hebrews, 26:2, v. 22)

Many claims about burial places and relics arose with the passing of time. It's understandable that people would refrain from making claims about Marian relics in later centuries, when the concept of a bodily assumption began circulating. As the comments of Epiphanius and John Chrysostom illustrate, there could be a variety of reasons for people to not mention bodily relics of Mary (or Elizabeth, Simeon, some of the apostles, etc.). A bodily assumption would be one possible explanation, but other explanations are plausible, and the other evidence involved is contrary to the concept of an apostolic tradition of a bodily assumption.

Catholics ought to acknowledge that a convincing historical case for an assumption of Mary is not to be had. They may appeal to the alleged authority of their denomination to support the doctrine, but a convincing case for that supposed authority isn't to be had either.