It’s no secret that the promulgation of the doctrine of the Assumption (like the promulgation of other Marian doctrines) is a scandal to many non-Catholics. Why did the Church promulgate such teachings and not just leave well enough alone? The answer lies in the reason the Church promulgates Marian doctrine at all: namely, that Marian doctrines are always a commentary on Christ and/or the nature of the Church or the human person. So, for instance, the dogma of the Theotokos or “Mother of God” was defined in order to “build a hedge” around the doctrine that Christ is one divine person with two natures. not two persons, one human and one divine occupying a single head.
Likewise, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is a commentary on the purity and holiness of the Church and the goodness of virginity and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception reflects the ancient biblical understanding of Christ’s Bride the Church as spotless and without wrinkle. It is, in short, a commentary on the thoroughness of the saving work of Christ (and on the fundamental dignity of the human person).
Significantly, the Holy Spirit saw fit to emphasize the Immaculate Conception at just the moment in world history where the dignity of the origins of the human person was coming under severe assault from materialist philosophies which saw the human person as a mere product of wind and weather (Darwin), of economic and political forces (Marx), as divided by race and class (Herbert Spencer), or as a creature driven solely by sex and powerless against unconscious forces (Freud). The definition of the dogma directly contradicts these unbiblical views of the human person.
So we come to 1950 and the definition of the Assumption. Why choose that moment to reiterate that ancient teaching? I believe it was because at that time the Church was witnessing the most colossal, systematic, and satanic assault on the dignity and particularly the destiny of the human person in the history of the world. Right smack in the middle of the century of genocide, totalitarianism, hedonism, materialism, mass propaganda and the worship of everything from sex to the state to science, the Church says, in this dogma, that the proper destiny of the human person is not Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Playboy Mansion, Costco, or the boob tube. It is Heaven. And Mary is, once again, the icon of that destiny, for what she has received from Christ we are also meant to receive.
That, in a nutshell, is what the Church is up to in Marian theology. The more I look at it, the more penetrating a reading of Scripture it appears to be. In particular, I am struck by how St. John calls us, not only to think in terms of Jesus, but to see ourselves associated with Mary. And so he includes the incident at the foot of the cross, not to give us details about Palestinian domestic arrangements for widows, but to make us see ourselves as included in “Woman, behold your son” and “Behold your mother.” I am also struck by how Revelation sees the Church as the “rest of her offspring”. I become more and more impressed by the fact that the best saints have found their sanctity enhanced, not diminished, by reverence for Our Lady (just look at John Paul II and Mother Teresa). I have come to believe the Church’s Marian theology is deeply and richly biblical. Indeed, I would argue that the reason the Church has been able to teach so brilliantly about the dignity of the human person both in Vatican II and in the writings of this Pope is that her Marian theology has prepared her like no other religious tradition to meet the onslaught of modernity and postmodernity against the dignity of the human person.