Assumptions

My birthday is August 15, which happens to be the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — a holy day of obligation in the Catholic church.  So, the two days of the year when I got presents — Christmas and my birthday — I also had to go to church.  It was a tradeoff I was willing to make — not that I had any choice.

Of course, when you’re young you just accept your religious beliefs.  I remember learning the distinction between the Ascension and the Assumption.  Jesus ascended to heaven of His own power; Mary was assumed into heaven by God.  Got it.

I can also recall being impressed that the proclamation of the Assumption as a dogma of the Church was an example of the pope (in this case, Pius XII) speaking ex cathedra — that is, infallibly.  Here is the declaration:

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

Most Protestants don’t believe in the Assumption because it has no Biblical basis.  Actually, it has no basis in historical fact whatsoever. The Catholic Encyclopedia says the first mention of the corporeal assumption of Mary into heaven showed up in treatise in the fourth or fifth century A.D.  So how does it become an infallibly pronounced belief of the universal Church?

This is a prime example of the Church considering its teaching authority to be as important a source of belief as the Bible.  People have believed in the Assumption down through the ages, and so finally the Pope asserted that it is true, and that faithful Catholics must believe that it is true.

My very fine commenter Stan asked me if I think religions are insane.  Of course not.  But they are fundamentally irrational, and this is an example.  Theologians wouldn’t see it that way, I suppose; they have scoured the Bible and the writings of the Church fathers to come up with texts that could be construed to support the dogma.  But the dogma is based purely on belief and tradition — not reason, not evidence.  Here, from Wikipedia, is the kind of “reasoning” the Pope uses:

Explaining these words of Sacred Scripture: “Who is this that comes up from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved?” [Song of Songs 8:5] and applying them in a kind of accommodated sense to the Blessed Virgin, [Saint Bonaventure] reasons thus: “From this we can see that she is there bodily…her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude. …

Huh?  Atheists are often chided because they take on fundamentalists rather than sophisticated theologians with their nuanced beliefs.  Catholic theologians aren’t stupid; Pope Pius XII wasn’t stupid.  But anytime I dip into Catholic theology I find stuff like this, which seems to have nothing to do with any reality that I understand.

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4 thoughts on “Assumptions

  1. I would say that there is a very fine line between the “irrational” and the truly crazy. Mind you, on this point, as an atheist, I agree with you!

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  2. Maybe weird is a better word. Romney took some flak recently for the Mormon practice of baptizing people after their death. But is this any stranger than the Catholic in invention of limbo?

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    • Richard Dawkins (naturally) has some incisive things to say about this. Why shouldn’t we judge political candidates on the weirdness of their religious beliefs? Maybe that’s worth a post.

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  3. Pingback: Joe Hurley explains why he became a priest | richard bowker

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