Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Sixth Day in the Octave of the Assumption of Our Lady

There's a lively discussion going on over at Fr Z over the extent to which the Dormition of Mary is part of the deposit of faith. It was stimulated, unfortunately by a rather arrogant and rude comment by an Eastern Rite Catholic, but has brought out some interesting points, not the least of which is the inability of many today to take proper note of the different between what we must believe, what we may believe and what we must not believe!

The commenters main message is that while Mary's death hasn't been formally defined, there is a lot of evidence from tradition for it - in the Eastern rite/Orthodox liturgy, in sacred art, and in the writings of the Church Fathers in particular.

The evidence for Our Lady's death

Some Eastern rite catholics in the debate have asserted that Westerners are ignoring their tradition. The problem is that there are a number of issues where Western and Eastern tradition diverge liturgically and in their traditions.

One example is St Mary Magdalene - the Eastern church view the various stories about women followers of Our Lord as being about different people. They reject for example the association of the sinful woman from Luke 7 as Mary Magdalene - whereas the traditional Latin Mass uses that text for St Mary Magdalene's feast day!

Another problem from the Western perspective is that the historical evidence one way or another is not strong - there are, as I've previously pointed out some traditions about the apostles gathering in Jerusalem for her death, but the written record of these is not early. There are private revelations going both ways (Elizabeth of Schonau saw a vision in which Our Lady did die; the Ven. Mary of Jesus of Agreda apparently saw the opposite).

Personally, I think the fact that the view that Our Lady didn't die arose very late, and runs counter to the monuments of tradition is fairly compelling. But the question is are we free to disagree on this?

Dr Ott

A really excellent resource on questions like this is Dr Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. First, whether or not Our Lady died is (potentially at least) a dogmatic fact:

"Dogmatic Facts (facta dogmatica). By these are understood historical facts, which are not revealed, but which are intrinsically connected with revealed truth, for example, the legality of a Pope or of a General Council, or the fact of the Roman episcopate of St. Peter. The fact that a defined text does or does not agree with the doctrine of the Catholic Faith is also, in a narrower sense, a "dogmatic fact." In deciding the meaning of a text the Church does not pronounce judgment on the subjective intention of the author, but on the objective sense of the text (D 1350 : sensum quem verba prae se ferunt). "

On such facts, people are free to debate until the Magisterium rules one way or another, which it clearly has not done in this case:

"Theological opinions are free views on aspects of doctrines concerning Faith and morals, which are neither clearly attested in Revelation nor decided by the Teaching Authority of the Church. Their value depends upon the reasons adduced in their favour (association with the doctrine of Revelation, the attitude of the Church, etc.).

A point of doctrine ceases to be an object of free judgment when the Teaching Authority of the Church takes an attitude which is clearly in favour of one opinion. Pope Pius XII explains in the Encyclical "Humani generis" (1950): "When the Popes in their Acts intentionally pronounce a judgment on a long disputed point then it is clear to all that this, according to the intention and will of these Popes, can no longer be open to the free discussion of theologians" (D 3013)."

There are however grades of theological certainty which go to how we should approach a particular assertion. This is how they are traditionally described:

"1. The highest degree of certainty appertains to the immediately revealed truths. The belief due to them is based on the authority of God Revealing (fides divina), and if the Church, through its teaching, vouches for the fact that a truth is contained in Revelation, one's certainty is then also based on the authority of the Infallible Teaching Authority of the Church (fides catholica). If Truths are defined by a solemn judgment of faith (definition) of the Pope or of a General Council, they are "de fide definita."

2. Catholic truths or Church doctrines, on which the infallible Teaching Authority of the Church has finally decided, are to be accepted with a faith which is based on the sole authority of the Church (fides ecclesiastica). These truths are as infallibly certain as dogmas proper.

3. A Teaching proximate to Faith (sententia fidei proxima) is a doctrine, which is regarded by theologians generally as a truth of Revelation, but which has not yet been finally promulgated as such by the Church.

4. A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions).

5. Common Teaching (sententia communis) is doctrine, which in itself belongs to the field of the free opinions, but which is accepted by theologians generally.

6. Theological opinions of lesser grades of certainty are called probable, more probable, well-founded (sententia probabilis, probabilior, bene fundata). [My view is that this is where Our Lady's death is located] Those which are regarded as being in agreement with the consciousness of Faith of the Church are called pious opinions (sententia pia). The least degree of certainty is possessed by the tolerated opinion (opimo tolerata), which is only weakly founded, but which is tolerated by the Church.

With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate, and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra (cf. D 1839). The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible.

Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus internus supernaturalis, assensus religiosus). The so-called "silentium obsequiosum." that is "reverent silence," does not generally suffice. By way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision rests on an error."

Hope this is helpful....


Felix said...

Perhaps part of the problem is that the Easterners reject Occam's razor.

I guess they think it is a Western novelty!

Joshua said...

Surely the death of the Most Blessed Virgin is "sententia communis", on the obvious grounds of it having been believed by all down to the 17th C., and by all but the "Immortalist" minority since then?

A perverse result of Pius XII NOT dealing with whether or not Our Lady died prior to her assumption is that Catholics, forgetful of the long list of grades of doctrinal certainty, adhere solely and only to what is defined infallibly, and therefore feel themselves MORE able to adhere to the formerly novel and less-held view that she did not die prior to her being translated from earth to heaven.

Cardinal Pole said...

It seems to me that in fact it is the more likely case that Our Lady’s soul was never separated from her body.

1) Given that, for one conceived or created without stain of original sin, the natural course of events is for the body never to be separated from the soul, it seems that the safe, probable a priori expectation would be that this is how it was for Our Lady. (Her Son, also conceived in innocence, did not die a natural death, so it seems like a non sequitur to say, as some do, that since Our Lord died, then so too should Our Lady.) In other words, if we are to approach this from the angle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, non-death would be the ‘verdict’ on the balance of probability.

2) Our Lady's death would have been an evil. God only permits an evil in order to avert a greater evil or bring forth some greater good. There is no question of a greater evil being averted, so what is the ‘greater good’ that is supposed to have come about? We know what the greater good in the Lord’s Passion was, but no-one seems to be able to demonstrate what the greater good in Our Lady’s death might be.

3) What was the cause of death, then? Clearly not old age (a consequence of original sin). Disease, then? Surely not. And we cannot admit the possibility that the separation of soul from body was willed directly by God.

It seems to me a fitting symmetry that the Second Eve, who brought redemption into the world (though did not communicate that redemption directly to mankind) should not die, while the first Eve incurred her death by bringing sin into the world (though not communicating it directly).

Now Terra, clearly I disagree with Mr. Hysell’s opinion, but what was “rather arrogant and rude” about the way he expressed it? The worst one might say was that it was a bit terse. Fr. Zuhlsdorf, on the other hand, belittled the man as being “obnoxious” and implying that he had ‘too much time on his hands’ (how can contemplation of Our Lady ever signify ‘too much time on one’s hands’?). It seems that he prefers his interlocuters either to be sycophants or, if they disagree with him, then ‘useful idiots’, whereas he casts aspersions on those who offer a strong line of argument and back it up with evidence.

Terra said...

On the degree of certainty, although the idea that Our Lady didn't die was only articulated clearly fairly late, there was always a lot of theological speculation about the nature of the Assumption.

It was only once the idea of the Assumption was fully understood (ie body and soul) that the next logical questions began to be articulated. I agree that is is curious that Pius XII left the question open, but we have to assume he did so for good reasons. I'd also note that whether or not she died is not at all crucial to the doctrine of the Assumption - its an interesting question, but in many ways a separate one.

On the rudeness of the original poster Cardinal Pole, I was originally going to say I didn't want to continue that debate here. But perhaps it is important, although if you want to continue, perhaps we can move this to under my post on angry trads.

My problem is this. Instead of politely setting out the case for a different view, Mr Hysell made his assertions belligerently,as if there was no room for doubt. He coupled it with an implication that he was better qualified than Fr Z. Then as the coup de grace he flung in demands for a correction under canon law - I mean come on, this is a blog not a sermon.

It is one thing to disagree with someone, quite another to be disrespectful and attack them personally, particularly when the person concerned is a priest. Moreover I don't think the claim that Fr Z only allows positive comments is in any way true.

Yes he manages the debate within a certain range, but it is after all his blog. He is trying to get out a particular message, not provide a debating forum, and I think that is a fair enough position.

That said, I think we all read Fr Z because of the depth and variety of comments his posts stimulate. And in fact if you read through this particular debate Fr Z has noted where people have put strong arguments that contradict his position.

The problem seems to me that traddies in particular are prone to equate taking a different view to them as holding a heretical view when in fact in most cases the issue is over differences of theological opinion or pastoral strategy rather than dogma.

And they then assume that because the person holds the wrong view they are motivated by an evil agenda. Mr Hysell's subsequent comments on the post I questions were a classic example of that with his attack on reform of the reformers.

We need to learn to separate out debate on the issues from debate on the people and their possible agendas. Think the best of people, not the worst, and leave the judging to God!

Just as guidance for commenters, I have to say that in that light I seriously considered rejecting Felix's comment. In the end I let it through, but probably next time I wouldn't.

On which, further comments here on the degree of certainty of Mary's death and related issues are welcome, but take anything on how we conduct the debate to the angry rad trad item...

Joshua said...

A very good summary of this and many related issues, Terra!

Thank you for your calming and rational direction of this blog! :-)

Louise said...

Catholics, forgetful of the long list of grades of doctrinal certainty, adhere solely and only to what is defined infallibly, and therefore feel themselves MORE able to adhere to the formerly novel and less-held view that she did not die prior to her being translated from earth to heaven.

Givven that the majority of pracitising Catholics appear not to even know the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I'd be willing to bet that very few of them have even heard of this issue, much less have any opinion on it.

Collin Michael Nunis said...

I'm an Eastern Catholic (Melkite) and it works both ways. I don't know what this Byzantine was rambling about, but then again, its always the case with these American Byzantines.

There is some fact to what he said, but the tone in which he presented his argument was like comparing green and red apples. To most of us, an apple is an apple, whether red or green.