14 August 2010

Papal Infallibility & The Assumption

(Murillo, Assumption of the Virgin, 1670,
Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Readings for the Assumption

Do you believe the Pope to be infallible? Do you think, in matters of faith and morality, the Pope is able to speak with such authority that it must be held to be true by all Catholics? Well, that is our understanding. This is the teaching of the Church going back well over a century now and yet it has often been cited as one of the whacky things that Catholics believe. It will be raised in the media as we prepare for the Holy Father’s visit next month. Surely no man can be without error, people will say. Of course these people misunderstand the teaching of Papal Infallibility, yet today is a perfect example of what we mean by it. Let me explain.

In 1946 Pope Pius XII polled the Catholic bishops throughout the world and after their affirmative response; he officially promulgated the dogma of Mary’s assumption on 1st November 1950. The Pope spoke, ex cathedra, infallibly. We, therefore, as dutiful Catholics hold this dogma of our faith to be absolute. Quite simply: Mary was assumed into heaven. No doubt whatsoever. Now, do we know this to be true because the Pope says so, or is it, as I suspect, because we simply know it as truth and, therefore, believe it. It’s a simple question to always ask yourself: is it true because we say it is, or do we believe because it is true!

Whilst there may be no explicit evidence within scripture for this truth; I don’t recall reading the Angel saying to Mary, “oh, and by the way, because you have said yes to be the Mother of God it means that you’re going to be assumed into heaven one day”, there is none the less clear signs within both Scripture and especially within our Tradition that bears witness to this special honour for Our Lady.

In the Gospel Elizabeth says two very interesting things during her greeting of Mary: she refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” and also “she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Thus, we have long held that the ravages of the tomb would never touch such a chosen one as Mary. Once Christ had died and then rose from the dead, it must surely be only natural that which was the way of the Son would be replicated in the mother. It is interesting to wonder if the dragon in the book of the Apocalypse somehow represents the decay of the tomb from which the child is snatched up to heaven and the woman is safely removed to the desert to await her turn and thus follow the son. To be assumed into heaven in due course. We will hear, in a moment, the priest say to God: you would not allow decay to touch her body, for she had given birth to your Son. In a sense, Mary’s assumption is pretty obvious really.

When Pope Pius declared this to be true, then, he wasn’t coming up with something new. Often, the harsh critics of Papal Infallibility will say: if the Pope loses the plot then, and says so and so, you have to believe it! As though Catholics were not born with reason and will believe anything and thus, subtly, those who would criticise us can declare all truth to be flawed: All truth to be simply a matter of choice and why is your choice any more important than mine?

We are not talking about who is right and who is wrong. We are taking about the truth revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Always, this is our starting point. Everything points to this. Mary’s assumption has its basis in being the Mother of God: thus is makes clear sense that she should be born immaculate and that she is, for us, the model of all humanity. Not only our personal model but also she shows the Church the way; not only in destiny but via the right route. We prayed at the beginning of Mass: May we see heaven as our final Goal and come to share her glory. We will conclude by praying: may we “be led to the glory of heaven by the prayers of the Virgin Mary.” Amen!

Thanks to Mary, and her assumption, we are able, therefore, to make very clear to people exactly what we mean by Papal Infallibility. This has been our understanding for well over a century now; can anyone actually name a time when it seemed like a daft idea. We love the Pope and we will give him due reverence and we are proud to listen to him speak!


  1. To the majority of this country the concept of Papal Infallibility just means that the Catholic church looks upon everyting the Pope says is to be taken as true. Catholics, and other people of faith need to make sure that the concept of 'ex cathedra' is put across as unfortunately it's going to be used as a big stick against Christianity and the Roman Catholic church when Benedict XIV makes his visit.

  2. Chris, thanks for the comments. I'm sure this issue will be raised time and again between now and Pope Benedict's forthcoming visit. Let's hope that there is some clear understanding available.



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