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The Father William Most Collection

The Evidence of the Post-Tridentine Theologians on Mary's Death

In the course of his review of the papers of the Mariological Society of America on Mary's death (EPHEMERIDES MARIOLOGICAE, VIII, pp. 423-45), Father Salvatore Bonano, C. M. F., has made some statements which could imply (though he probably did not intend the implication) that I hold opinions which I by no means do hold. First of all on his opening page he says that "Five speakers at the Convention... defended the position" that our Lady died. Since there were six speakers in all, and since he notes that I said that the consensus of the post-Tridentine theologians "did not necessarily constitute a reliable argument" for her death, someone might suppose that I defended, or a least leaned to the immortalist position. Such is far from the truth, as I made clear in the discussion outside of my paper1. In addition, in my book, Mary in Our Life2, written before the Convention, I defended the view that she did die: "Mary is... the sharer in the lot of her Son at every step. Hence she must have died." Again, in an article in The Priest3, written after the Convention, I restated the same view. In the paper itself, however, I thought it my place to give merely as objective an analysis as I could of the views of the post-Tridentine theologians, not my own views.

The second point on which I would wish a clarification is again one on which, although Father Bonano did no really charge me with a view I do not hold, yet his words might be taken to imply such a view. For he says4: "... theological sights must be brought to focus not so much on the length or quantity of the roster, though obviously this is important, as on its stature and quality". I fully agree with Fr. Bonano on this point. One would have to be worse than a novice in theology to think mere numbers could decide a matter of this kind.

However, there is a special reason why I focused so much attention on numbers, which will become clear from a fuller explanation of my paper.

At the outset, I should like to explain that my paper has never been published, since I, of my own accord, refused to permit publication. This was not merely a case of "resignation by request", as Father J. B. Carol, O.F.M., our distinguished Editor, can testify. Rather, I refused to permit publication because I was so deeply aware of the fact that I had not had access to a nearly complete library. Few libraries anywhere in the world would contain the large number of books required for a thorough study of the post-Tridentine theologians in this problem. In particular, I doubt if anywhere in the United States could such a library be found. As a result of this deficiency, I had to depend too often on citations of theologians by other writers, without having the chance to study the full context. Hence I had to adopt a sort of sampling procedure, comparable in a way to that used in polls. Both at the beginning of my paper, and again before giving the conclusion, I frankly called attention to these limitations. For these strong reasons, therefore, I did not want to permit publication of the paper, even though, while confessing the limitations, I was willing to present my very restricted finding for our members only at their meeting.

The reason why I paid little attention to the relative weight of various theologians cited in giving my conclusions is that even with making such allowances, it seemed to me that we are far from reaching a conclusive proof. Great care in handling this evidence is necessary, since it is generally admitted, that where there is a moral unanimity of the best theologians on a matter of faith, such an agreement is a certain criterion of divine tradition.

Let us survey rapidly the conclusions that could be had from my restricted evidence. First, I admitted that "the vast majority of theologians do teach Mary's death. "But it is not enough to teach her death. They must also make clear that they believe it to be a revealed truth. For even the Holy Father himself, when he defines a truth of faith, must make entirely clear that he intends to define: otherwise, even though he personally might hold a doctrine, he has not succeeded in defining it. So we must use similar caution in examining the statements of theologians: unless they make clear, that they consider a matter as revealed, they cannot be taken into account in building up the requisite moral unanimity which will prove that a truth is revealed.

I was able to inspect statements of 165 theologians. Out of these, 67 assigned no reason at all in the passages I was able to consult. Since, as I had taken care to admit at the start, I often had to use secondary citations, there is room for error in this figure.

Father Bonano suggests that perhaps those who gave no reasons are relying on solid theological work done by others. This may be true: but even if it is (and that is not entirely certain) we cannot count such writers in our effort to find a criterion of divine revelation for the simple reason that they have not made clear that they believe her death is revealed. As was said above, eves a Pope must make clear he is teaching a truth as revealed, or else his attempted definition would be invalid.

Of those writers whom I found giving reasons, 44 out of the 165 gave the teaching of the Church and/or, the Fathers as their reason. I readily admit that such statements probably mean that these theologians consider her death as revealed. But have they made clear beyond doubt that such is the case? One may be permitted to question it. For we can expect that really good theologians will have studied carefully the precise statements of the Fathers and the Church. If they have not done this, then, in weighing their work, we must not consider their testimony as of great worth. Now what did the Fathers really say? As Father Burghardt said in his excellent paper: "The patristic evidence before the Council of Ephesus (431) is, on the whole, disappointing and inconclusive."5 About the end of this period, the apocryphal accounts begin to appear, and thereafter, those Fathers who speak of Mary's death are, at least for the most part, depending on the apocrypha rather than on revelation. Thus their testimony is of so little value that Pope Pius XII, in his long survey of tradition in the Munificentissimus Deus simply passed by most of them. Therefore if a writer gives as his reason the "unanimous" or "morally unanimous teaching of the Fathers", as do some of those whom Father Bonano cites as specially weighty, I must conclude that their testimony, far from being of special weight, rather possesses very little weight in this matter, since they have made clear, by their loose statements, that they have not really studied the Fathers. Such men as Carthagena, Vega, Shguanin and Billuart, are, of course, excellent theologians in general. But even Homer nods-and they have fallen well below their usual standard in treating of Our Lady's death.

The case is somewhat similar when theologians appeal to the teaching of the Church, though it differs in that there is far more evidence of favor by the Church to the belief in Mary's death (especially the liturgical evidence). Yet the case is parallel in that even today it is by no means beyond question that the Church teaches Mary's death even as a natural truth, not to say, as a revealed truth. The attitude of the Church was made especially plain in the fact that Pius XII, not without obvious difficulty in wording, carefully refrained from stating her death in his own words.

Hence I would conclude that an appeal to the teaching of the Church and or the Fathers cannot be more conclusive than the teaching of the Fathers and of the Church itself.

Second in favor as a reason for Mary's death is the fact that she had a mortal nature. But only 28 out of the 165 gave this reason, and, of these, by no means all appealed to Scripture. Furthermore, I do not believe a statement of this sort proves immediately that the writer considers her death as revealed: he might consider it as a natural fact, known by the fact that she had a mortal nature. Even if one would wish to say that the death of George Washington, Napoleon-in fact, the death of every individual of past ages-is a revealed truth inasmuch as we know from the fact of original sin that all men are mortal, the inference from original sin to Mary's death would not be so obvious. I do not wish to imply that her lack of original sin proves her immortality the argument attempting to prove that seems to me to be hopelessly inconclusive. But neither is it completely obvious that we can prove the fact of her death from original- sin. Hence, to say that Mary died because she had a mortal nature does not necessarily prove the-writer of the statement considered her death as revealed.Other reasons were found to be given, in very small numbers. Especially notable among these is the belief that Our Lady died in conformity to Christ. Father Bonano explains this reason beautifully. I would consider this reason strongest of all, and most theological, as being probably contained in the revealed principle of consortium. But so few post-Tridentine theologians invoked this reason.Hence we see that both in number and in weight, the evidence is insufficient to constitute a criterion of revelation. For the numbers are very small, and, as we have seen, not a few theologians of otherwise great repute have shown by their statements that they have not really studied this matter carefully. Therefore their testimony for Mary's death cannot he said to possess special weight.Finally, I think that this is almost an instance in which we could invoke the axiom: Qui nimium probat, nil probat. If, as some writers have claimed, there really were a moral unanimity (considering both numbers and weight) of theologians that Mary's death is a revealed truth, then we would have a sure proof. But this would be proving too much, at least in the judgment of Pope Pius XII-for he, knowing well the evidence of the theologians, still considered her death an open question.


1It was also made clear in the discussions that not one of those who read his paper there considered his evidence conclusive.
2Mary in Our Life (New York, 1956), p. 43.
3The Priest, magazine, February, 1968, pp. 131-39.
4Art. cit., p. 438.
5Marian Studies, vol. 8 (1957), p. 58.


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