Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption

Pope Pius XII raised to the level of official Roman Catholic Church dogma the venerable popular belief that God had taken the Virgin Mary, body and soul, into Heaven. The pope hoped thereby to challenge the pervasive materialism of the day.

Summary of Event

The papacy of Pius XII spanned the six years of World War II and the first dozen years of the Cold War that followed. It was a time of enormous upheaval in the world, including the Roman Catholic Church. By the time of his death in 1958, however, Pius’s pontificate was judged a success, and he was generally regarded as courageous and having much integrity. [kw]Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption (Nov. 1, 1950)[Pius 12 Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption]
[kw]Doctrine of the Assumption, Pius XII Proclaims the (Nov. 1, 1950)
[kw]Assumption, Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the (Nov. 1, 1950)[Assumption, Pius 12 Proclaims the Doctrine of the]
Assumption, doctrine of the
Christianity;Catholic doctrines
Assumption, doctrine of the
Christianity;Catholic doctrines
[g]Europe;Nov. 1, 1950: Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption[03290]
[g]Italy;Nov. 1, 1950: Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption[03290]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Nov. 1, 1950: Pius XII Proclaims the Doctrine of the Assumption[03290]
Pius XII
Benedict XIV
Hochhuth, Rolf

This image changed dramatically in 1963 with the appearance of the play Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel
Deputy, The (Hochhuth) (pr., pb. 1963; The Representative, 1963; also known as The Deputy, 1964) by Rolf Hochhuth. In this fictional work, Hochhuth condemned the pope for cowardly silence during the war, especially as related to the Holocaust. The play ignited a firestorm of dispute that would largely eclipse the assessment of other significant aspects of Pius’s pontificate. Among the most notable of the eclipsed events was Pope Pius’s decision in 1950 to make official a popular Catholic belief that went back at least fourteen hundred years, namely that the Virgin Mary had at the end of her life been assumed body and soul into Heaven without suffering the indignity of burial or of fleshly corruption.

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, the future Pius XII, had evidenced early on a deep devotion to Mary. While young Pacelli came from an Italian family known for producing several generations of lawyers, his primary interest was the Church. After attending the prestigious Gregorian University in Rome, he was ordained in 1899. Father Pacelli soon joined the papal diplomatic service, where he remained for thirty-five years, spending the last ten (1929-1939) as a cardinal and papal secretary of state, the Vatican’s chief negotiator. Upon the death of Pope Pius XI on the eve of World War II, Cardinal Pacelli was elected his successor, taking the name Pius XII.

The new pontiff was convinced that patient negotiation was the only way to dispel the clouds of war that hung over Europe in 1939. When this course of action failed to avert World War II, the papacy did what it could to alleviate the suffering and the horrors of that war.

The war ended in 1945 with officially atheistic Communist Party regimes installed all across the largely Catholic nations of Eastern Europe. The Church in those countries was under siege. Furthermore, Communist popularity was surging in Italy itself. Pius excommunicated several nominally Catholic Communist leaders in Poland, Hungary, and Italy. He forbade Italian Catholics to vote for Communist candidates in elections.

The pope then turned in a more positive direction, working for the renovation of Catholic spiritual life. He believed that the Catholic faith was severely threatened by a pervasive secular culture permeated by values of materialism and religious indifference. He discerned one promising corrective to this situation in championing the popular devotion to the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven. Pius XII had long been personally convinced that God had brought Mary physically intact into Heaven as a special reward for her selfless and central role in furthering the redemptive mission of her son Jesus Christ. Official Church celebration of this mystery, he believed, could encourage the opening of new spiritual dimensions in Catholicism, especially among the laity.

The first known written reference to Mary’s assumption occurred in a late fourth century obituary that showed clear gnostic influences. Several early Church councils had condemned gnosticism Gnosticism
Christianity;gnosticism as a heresy. By the sixth century, however, this popular devotion had extended into mainline Christian communities, both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. From this point, the devotion spread steadily across the medieval Christian world. It received an additional boost in the thirteenth century from eminent theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Assumption to be a “probable opinion,” which conferred upon it at least a semiofficial status. A century later, in 1854, Pope Pius IX Pius IX decreed that Mary had been born without original sin. The promulgation of this dogma of the Immaculate Conception encouraged many to seek similar validation for a doctrine of the Assumption, but Pius IX said the time was not yet ripe for another Marian doctrine.

The time for such a doctrine came during the reign of Pius XII. Again, it was against the background of the mounting challenge of communism and a pervasive secularism that the pope moved to reinvigorate the spiritual life of the Catholic laity. Since there were few other devotions closer to his own spirituality than the various liturgies to Mary, he had long viewed with special sympathy an authoritative Church recognition of Mary’s assumption. In 1946, only a year after the war, Pius had asked the Catholic bishops around the world to express their views, and those of their clergy and laity, on making Mary’s assumption official Church dogma. When 99 percent of the 1,234 bishops responded in the affirmative, the only question was when the pope would take the final step.

By late 1950, Pius XII was ready. On November 1, he promulgated a special bull, or Apostolic Constitution. Its title, taken from the first two words of the Latin document, was Munificentissmus Deus
Munificentissmus Deus (papal bull)
Papacy, Roman Catholic;bulls
Roman Catholic Church;papal bulls (the most bountiful God). Henceforth, the dogma of the Assumption was to be believed by all Catholics. As officially defined, Mary had at her life’s end ascended body and soul into Paradise, where she would preside forever alongside her divine son, interceding on behalf of her fellow human beings and serving as the perfect model for all humankind. She could be prayed to and venerated for her unique status, but she was not considered equal in status to Christ.

To give further force to his decree, Pius XII proclaimed that the new teaching on the Assumption had an infallible authority behind it. In 1870, the First Vatican Council through the assembled bishops had decreed that thenceforth any pope who pronounced ex cathedra (that is, officially) on a matter of Catholic faith or morals was preserved from error Papacy, Roman Catholic;infallibility by God acting through the council. Catholics were therefore bound to believe the dogma of the Assumption under pain of excommunication.

While Pius recognized that no place in the Bible referred explicitly to Mary’s assumption, he cited several passages that seemed to imply it had occurred. For example, in the book of Revelation 12:1, a woman is described as clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. The pope thought that this could refer to Mary. He also stressed that it was altogether fitting that God treat Mary with special attention. Preserved from original sin and having cooperated freely with Christ’s earthly mission, only Mary had been present during Christ’s birth, passion, death, and resurrection. She therefore fully deserved to join her son immediately in Paradise.

Many Protestants found much to deplore in this teaching. Evangelicals, who believed that the Bible contained the sole source of Christian truth, noted the lack of explicit scriptural proof for the doctrine. Others saw the lack of any mention of the Assumption in the earliest Christian centuries as fatal to its credibility. Finally, a number of Protestants feared that the new doctrine would erect a formidable new barrier to ecumenical discussions with the Catholic Church. Defenders responded that the Church had a broader concept of tradition that could include popular devotions like the Assumption if they were judged spiritually beneficial by the pope in his capacity as the Church’s main teaching authority.


Although the papacy of Pius XII has remained the most controversial of the twentieth century, fresh evidence and the reevaluation of old evidence has blunted some of the most serious charges leveled earlier against the pope’s wartime conduct. This has made it more feasible to examine other aspects of his pontificate, especially its pastoral dimension.

Most particular, in his approval of the Assumption as official Church belief and practice, Pius XII offered to Roman Catholics a vital spiritual antidote to the widespread religious malaise that afflicted so much of postwar secular society in Europe and elsewhere. An elaborate new liturgy was devised for the now official annual celebration of the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. It quickly became the foremost of the Marian feasts. The history of the Assumption as a tribute to Mary as the mother of Christ demonstrated clearly the power and persistence of a popular lay devotion that had persisted for more than fourteen hundred years before achieving its ultimate recognition in the decree of Pius XII in the mid-twentieth century. Assumption, doctrine of the
Christianity;Catholic doctrines

Further Reading

  • Hatch, Alden, and Seamus Walshe. Crown of Glory: The Life of Pius XII. New York: Hawthorn Press, 1957. Older biography but invaluable for a view of the pontificate as a whole, including the Assumption dogma. Controversial papal actions during World War II are given ample but not preponderant space.
  • Marchioni, Marghariti. Pope Pius XII: Architect for Peace. New York: Paulist Press, 2000. While most of book relates to defense of Pius XII’s policies during the Nazi era, the Assumption dogma receives significant attention.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Chapter 15 brings a stimulating Protestant perspective to the development of the idea of Mary’s assumption, beginning with the early Church. Illustrations.
  • Pope Pius XII. Munificentissmus Deus: The Dogma of the Assumption. New York: Paulist Press, 1951. Full text of the document in English.
  • Winch, Raymond, and Victor Bennett. The Assumption of Our Lady and Catholic Theology. London: S.P.C.K., 1950. Particularly helpful in sorting out the various arguments advanced pro and con this teaching.

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